Ukraine's election authorities said Saturday that they are unable to operate polling places for Sunday's presidential election in areas representing about 10% of the population and that separatist threats against anyone trying to cast ballots in the violence-plagued east could further deter turnout.
Pro-Russia militants who hold key government buildings and broadcast facilities in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions also appeared to have tightened their grip on the dozen or so communities they control at gunpoint, according to government officials and international security monitors.
Ukrainians go to the polls to choose from among 21 contenders for a head of state to succeed President Viktor Yanukovich, who was ousted in February after a three-month rebellion over his decision to scrap closer ties to the European Union in favor of continued economic integration with Russia.
Yanukovich, a Kremlin ally, has taken refuge in Russia and is accused by Kiev's interim authorities and their Western backers of helping foment the pro-Russia aggression that resulted in the seizure and annexation of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula and has allowed armed separatists to take control of the largely Russian-speaking eastern regions.
Polls show billionaire "Chocolate King" Petro Poroshenko with a huge lead over his nearest competitor, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. More than 40% of those surveyed say they will vote for Poroshenko, with Tymoshenko drawing around 6%, about the same as Sergei Tihipko, who advocates stronger rights for Ukraine's Russian-speaking minority. If no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote, a runoff would be scheduled for June 15 between the two top vote-getters.
Acting Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk made a televised appeal for maximum voter turnout on Sunday and sought to assure those unable to cast ballots in the separatist-occupied areas that their isolation would end soon.
"I want to assure our fellow countrymen from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, who will not be able to vote because of the war, that criminals won't terrorize your land for long," Yatsenyuk said, blaming Russia for instigating the violence.
Early Saturday, Interior Ministry public security chief Volodymyr Hrinyak told the Interfax news agency that half of the two regions' 34 polling places would be open for voters on Sunday. But hours later the head of the Voters Committee of Ukraine, Oleksandr Chernenko, conceded that separatists had overrun as many as 10 more on the eve of the election, predicting that only seven to nine polls would be operating for the two regions with a combined population of 6.5 million, or 15% of the country's population since the loss of Crimea.
Monitors of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe also reported a significant fall-off in peaceful protest actions against the separatists organized by mining and steel magnate Rinat Akhmetov, who had drawn hundreds of drivers into noon horn-honking demonstrations in Donetsk over the last week. OSCE said in its Saturday report that only a single driver took part in the protest on Friday.
In Mariupol, where Akhmetov's steelworkers joined police patrols last week to deter the spread of militant control in the port city, election organizers were unable to set up voting places because of threats of attacks by the gunmen who have apparently retaken control of the city.