Ukrainian presidential candidate Petro Poroshenko, center left, and his wife, Maria, and son Alexey, right, cast their ballots at a polling station during the presidential election in Ukraine on May 25, 2014. / Sergei Chuzavkov, AP
MARIUPOL, Ukraine - Ukrainians chose "Chocolate King" Petro Poroshenko as president Sunday, according to exit polls, in elections that may determine the future of the troubled former Soviet republic reeling from a separatist crisis.
Poroshenko, a lawmaker who runs the country's largest confectionary manufacturer, won almost 56% of the vote, which surpassed the 50% threshold needed to avoid a runoff against former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who came in second with almost 13%, polls showed. Final results are expected to be announced Monday.
Still, the vote was not trouble free: Long lines formed in western parts of the country while the east saw disruptions at polling stations.
In Kiev, the capital, elections officials said they expect high turnout even as voters waiting in long lines expressed frustration with the lack of facilities to accommodate them. Officials pleaded for patience, saying there was a "terrible shortage" of voting infrastructure around the country, according to Andriy Magera, deputy head of Ukraine's Central Election Commission.
At a central election booth on one of Kiev's main roads, there were angry scenes as people tried to elbow their way into the polling station. Inside the booth, voters reported that electoral rolls were out-of-date - and included dead people.
Many voters at the polling station wore Ukrainian national costumes, and some studied the electoral programs of candidates of candidates including Poroshenko and Tymoshenko.
"I hadn't voted for a long time before this, but I voted today, said Daniela Oksana, 37, wiping tears from her face. She was moved that the vote was finally taking place after months of disruptions. "It's really important to vote so that stability and order returns to the country and so our children have a real future."
"I went to a lot of the demonstrations and while they were never violent, I feel that the country has earned a better future," she added.
In eastern Ukraine, some voters were said to be afraid to go to the polls as pro-Russian separatists continued to fight Ukrainian forces. In some cities, such as Donetsk and Mariupol, polls were shut altogether.
"They were either threatened or paid off," said Svetlana Onichenko, a teacher, referring to absent election officials. "I want peace, stability for Ukraine."
Ukraine's elections are being held amid a background of deep unrest in the country. In March, Crimea was annexed by Russia and pro-Russian separatists have since been pushing for more autonomy, and possibly separation, in the east and south of the country. This has led to an escalating military conflict with Ukrainian government forces.
Many people in Ukraine are hoping Poroshenko can get the country back on track. The new president will replace ousted president Viktor Yanukovych, who fled the country in February after three months of anti-government protests known as EuroMaidan. Ukraine is split between those who favor closer relations with the European Union and the West, and those who want closer ties to Russia.
But with 15% of voters possibly cut off in the east and south, there are worries over the legitimacy of the election, the results of which Russia has promised to respect.
Earlier this month, armed separatists operating in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions declared independence from Ukraine and seized administrative buildings. They have vowed to enforce a boycott of the election. And on Friday, Volodymyr Hryniak, the Ukrainian Interior Ministry's head of public security, told reporters that only 13 out of 22 election commissions were functioning in Donetsk. Four of 12 were expected to function in Luhansk, he said.
Ukraine's government says reports of kidnappings, threats and arson have plagued election offices throughout the eastern region. Separatist leaders - who command heavily armed militias - have also threatened to arrest would-be voters, according to the federal government.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has decided not to field its full election observer team in restive areas due to the uncertain security situation.
"It won't be what we would do normally because the basic fact is that you have armed gangs on the ground there who are using violence and intimidation," Thomas Rymer, a spokesman for OSCE's election observer team in Ukraine, told USA TODAY.
Some locals in the city of Donetsk said they had no intention of voting anyway, as they don't recognize the caretaker government in Kiev.
Sergei, a 59-year-old welder who declined to give his last name for fear of making his personal views public, said he supported the creation of the so-called Donetsk People's Republic in an ad hoc referendum held May 11. He blamed far-right Ukrainian nationalists in the caretaker government for stoking the secessionist sentiment in the Russian-speaking east.
"We didn't want to split Ukraine," he said. "If it wasn't for those people in the Maidan movement, then our eastern region might remain inside Ukraine."
Resneck reported from Donetsk; McPhedran, from Kiev. Contributing: The Associated Press
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Read the original story: Exit poll: Billionaire candy tycoon wins Ukraine vote