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A veteran of the Euro-Maidan freedom movement eats a meal as he guards a military vehicle at Maidan Square in Kiev on May 23, 2014. / Filip Singer, epa

KIEV, Ukraine - When thousands of protesters attacked police in Kiev in December, one politician tried to stop the bloodshed. Lawmaker Petro Poroshenko pleaded with the angry crowd, urging them to avoid violence.

Six months and a revolution later, the so-called "Chocolate King" ?? he runs the country's largest candy manufacturer ?? is expected to win Ukraine's presidential elections Sunday to replace ousted president Viktor Yanukovych, who fled the country in February following three months of anti-government protests.

The elections are being held amid a background of deep unrest in the country. Crimea was annexed by Russia in March and pro-Russian separatists are pushing for more autonomy and possibly separation in the east and south of the country, which has led to an escalating military conflict between government forces and separatists.

Ukraine's government said Friday that 20 insurgents were killed in clashes with soldiers on Thursday, the Associated Press reported.

Those tensions will make it difficult for many Ukrainians to vote. Separatists have called for a boycott of the vote and 16 out of 32 regional election committees in Ukraine's eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk have already been blocked by armed insurgents, according to Central Elections Committee of Ukraine.

Voters say they will try anyway.

"Hopefully the authorities will provide the conditions for safe voting," said Svitlana Chervonenko of Donetsk, a city in the east that has seen violence break out over the past month. "These elections feel more important than ones before and I don't want to be left out of it."

Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged Friday to respect the results of the vote.

Poroshenko, believed to be worth $1.6 billion, is leading in the polls by a significant margin. Even if he doesn't win more than 50% of the vote and is forced into a runoff, analysts expect him to prevail.

"The crisis in the country has created a demand for not just a leader but a seasoned crisis manager," said Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the Penta Center for Political Studies here.

Poroshenko's closest competitor is Yulia Tymoshenko, a legendary figure in Ukrainian politics who was released from prison in the wake of the protests. She was serving a seven-year term after a conviction for abusing the power of her office.

Tymoshenko is a divisive figure who disappointed many voters during her term as prime minister from 2007 to 2010, Fesenko said.

In the 2010 elections, Tymoshenko lost to Yanukovych by 3.5%.

The Party of Regions, which includes former associates of Yanukovych, are running candidates but are polling poorly, according to recent polls.

And Oleh Tyahnybok, head of nationalist party Svoboda, is polling at 1%, which seems to contradict pro-Russian propaganda that Ukrainian nationalists are taking over the country, to the detriment of the Russian-speaking regions.

With pro-Russian separatists still pushing for independence, the elections are likely to deepen divisions in the country, analysts say.

"The elections could polarize the country even more," said Vesna Popovski, a researcher at the European Institute at the London School of Economics.

Some voters expressed chagrin over the candidates, saying they don't reflect the tenor of the protests that swept the old guard from power.

"Looking at who the main candidates are, it seems that the changes that we fought for are still a long way off," Lidiya Pankiv said.



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Ukraine election to be held amid continued violence

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