An Ukrainian woman reads her ballot at a polling station in Mariupol, Ukraine, on May 25, 2014. / Ivan Sekretarev, AP
MARIUPOL, Ukraine - Increasingly mired in partisan violence and slipping further from Kiev's control, regional governments struggled to hold elections Sunday in eastern Ukraine.
"We have to acknowledge that a portion of the voters could not exercise their right to vote," said Sergei Taruta, governor of Donetsk. "We cannot risk the lives of people in conditions where the elections are disrupted by fully armed militants."
Voting took place in nine out of 22 regional districts, according to the regional administration's preliminary estimates. According to the Central Electoral Commission, only 18% of polling stations opened in Luhansk and 31% in Donetsk.
The government administration was kicked out of its building in central Donetsk by the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, which declared independence from Ukraine after a May 11 referendum. DPR's separatists took hold of several other buildings and set up roadblocks across the region, patrolling designated polling centers to make sure the vote didn't take place.
Many voters - acting on reports that they could vote at Donetsk's international airport - were turned away Sunday after being told the voting had been canceled.
"I had called often to our local polling station but no one answered, so we came here," said one would-be voter, Natalia Sedova, 56. "There are other old people, too (who want to vote), but it's difficult because they don't have transport."
Meanwhile, streets were quiet in downtown Donetsk on Sunday. Shops were closed and people stayed home, many fearful of violence. By mid-afternoon, none of the city's nearly 500 polling stations were operational, leaving the city's population of 900,000 unable to vote.
Separatists say Donetsk is an independent state that is no longer part of Ukraine. But many here said that they would have liked to vote.
"This is my civil duty," Ilona Kostenka, 25, said on Saturday. "I don't think this will be the end of the crisis but maybe it will be calmer."
Polling stations were operational in Dmitrov, a small town in Donetsk province under the protection of the Ukrainian army. Voters there were slowly filing into polling station No.140743, where posters of the 18 candidates were pinned to the walls, and observers sat in the neat row next to voting booths with curtains in the Ukrainian national colors of yellow and blue.
At a Dmitrov polling station with his wife, Igor Ivenych said he cast his vote in favor of Poroshenko.
"We found him the most optimal. It's like when you buy a new car, you have to take into account quality but also price. Just as there is no ideal car, there's no ideal candidate," he said.
In the town of Krasnoarmeisk in the Donetsk province, Yelena Bigvava, one of the monitors at a polling office, said she was simply happy to be casting her vote and hopeful the elections would help end the crisis in the nation.
"For us it's a great joy that elections are taking place," Bigvava said. "We're just happy that they are happening."
For months, Ukraine's army and nationalist brigades have struggled to maintain control, lacking equipment, ammunition and crowd-funding basic equipment like safety vests.
The first priority for the country's new president will be restoring security and reintegrating the eastern region, which has been shaken by a separatist agenda and renewed hatred of oligarchs with ties to highest levels of power.
The new leader will also have to counter the feeling among the region's inhabitants that they have little to do with the official electoral process. The ouster of Victor Yanukovych, who was originally from Donetsk, unleashed a corrupt and bitter fight for the political control of the industrial Donbas region.
"The election is illegitimate, but we are not going to block or obstruct elections," said Aleksandr Borisov, a military commissar at Mariupol Donetsk People's Republic who manages 1,500 separatists in Mariupol alone. "We are a separate state."
"We will continue to fight looting, lawlessness that is happening," he added. "We need to create new police, new law enforcement agencies."
Walker reported from Donetsk and Krasnoarmeisk. Contributing: Jacob Resneck from Donetsk
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