Pro-European parties appeared to have won a majority in Ukraine's parliamentary election Sunday, based on exit polls in a vote marred by separatist sabotage amid the ravages of a collapsing economy and civil war.
President Petro Poroshenko's political bloc was in the lead, garnering about 23% of the vote, according to two exit polls carried out nationwide. A like-thinking Popular Front headed by Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk was reported to have captured 21%.
The recently formed Self-Help alliance based in western Ukraine was getting a surprising 13%, according to the exit polls, which could allow the reform-minded, pro-European forces to collaborate and avoid having to align with nationalists who had been seen as resurgent.
The right-wing Radicals appeared to take only 7% of the vote that had been forecast to give them nearly twice as much. The Fatherland Party of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko also fared poorly, collecting less than 6%, according to the exit polls. Tymoshenko, appearing on television minutes after the voting forecasts were released, pledged to support the apparent victors in their mission to clean up endemic corruption and lift the country from its economic crisis.
A political bloc uniting some former governing Party of Regions delegates and other pro-Russia politicians easily cleared the 5% threshold for taking seats in the Supreme Council with 7.6% of the vote, according to the exit pollsters. The Communist Party failed to get enough votes in the proportional balloting and for the first time in Ukraine's modern history will be without representation in the 450-seat legislature.
But a strengthened front committed to closer relations with the United States and the European Union may do little to improve relations with Moscow or tamp down the conflict with pro-Russia separatists that has taken more than 3,700 lives.
Russian-backed militants have seized Crimea and other regions of eastern Ukraine, angered over the Kiev government's decision last year to steer trade and relations westward and away from the country's traditional alignment with Russia.
Turnout of slightly more than 40% was decidedly less robust than in May, when more than 60% of voters cast ballots and Poroshenko captured 55% to win the presidency in a single round against 20 contenders.
As many as one in six registered voters might have been unable to cast a ballot. Moscow-backed gunmen occupying much of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine refused to open polls for an election they consider irrelevant to their proclaimed independent republics. Crimea, the strategic Black Sea peninsula wrested from Ukraine in February, also took no part in what its new Russian masters consider the affairs of a foreign country.
Still, the young activists spawned by the "Maidan" rebellion that ousted Kremlin ally Viktor Yanukovich from the presidency in February infused energy and optimism into the vote. More than 4,000 volunteers joined 700 foreign observers in standing watch at polling places to encourage a free and fair vote.
"There have always been problems with elections in Ukraine, and I would not say there haven't been problems today," said Danish lawmaker Hanne Severinsen, who has monitored elections here for 20 years. "But there will be new faces in parliament and those who will be elected will start the reforms that have been talked about for so long."
Poroshenko appeared at a polling place in the recently liberated city of Kramatorsk to show support for the troops and lament that at least 25,000 deployed in the battle to recover territory were unable to cast ballots, as were many of the 800,000-plus refugees driven from their homes by the fighting.
A delegation from the U.S. International Republican Institute visited Slovyansk, another eastern city that was held by separatists for months before government forces regained it in July.
"People expressed overwhelming interest in a unified Ukraine. The separatist movement has no interest for the people of that city. But there is also nervousness. People are fearful the fighting could return," said Olin L. Wethington, a board member for the democracy-building advocates.
In Kiev, voters were gripped by the same struggle between hope and uncertainty.
Lyubov Kusyakova, a weekend attendant at a downtown office building, couldn't recall the name of the individual candidate she voted for – "one of the Maidan girls," she said, referring to the idealistic young leaders from last winter's revolution. "It's time to let the next generation have its chance."