Long queues snaked around polling stations in Kiev for the vote, but in Ukraine’s troubled east, heavily armed pro-Russia rebels intimidated voters by smashing ballot boxes and blocking off voting centres.
The elections took place despite weeks of fighting in the eastern regions that form Ukraine’s industrial heartland, where pro-Russia insurgents have seized government buildings, battled government troops and vowed to disrupt the ballot.
The exit poll for the election, conducted by three respected Ukrainian survey agencies, showed the 48-year-old tycoon Mr Poroshenko getting 55.9 per cent of the vote.
A distant second was former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko with 12.9 per cent. Full results are expected to be announced today in as election that could be a critical step toward resolving Ukraine’s crisis.
The poll, which quizzed some 17,000 voters, claimed a margin of error of 2 percentage points, indicating Mr Poroshenko had clearly passed the 50 percent mark needed to win without a run-off. It was conducted by the Razumkov Centre, Kiev International Sociology Institute.
The election came three months after the country’s pro-Russia leader fled, chased from power by months of protests over corruption and his decision to reject a pact with the EU and forge closer ties with Moscow.
The question of who was able to vote loomed large over the democratic process. Some 35.5 million Ukrainians were eligible, but separatists in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions – which have 5.1 million voters – had vowed to stop the election.
Military operations had eased for the day, but there were reports of heavy gunfire in the afternoon in the Luhansk region town of Novoaidar.
Little voting was taking place in the east. The regional administration in Donetsk said only 426 of 2,430 polling stations in the region were open, and none in the city of Donetsk, which has one million people. There was no voting in the city of Luhansk either, but some stations appeared to be open in the wider Luhansk region, according to local officials.
“I am convinced that this election must finally bring peace to Ukraine, stop lawlessness, stop chaos, stop bandit terror in the east,” Mr Poroshenko said after casting his vote in Kiev, where many people wore traditional embroidered shirts in a sign of Ukrainian patriotism.
Russian president Vladimir Putin promised on Friday to “respect the choice of the Ukrainian people” and said he would work with the winner, in an apparent bid to ease Russia’s worst crisis with the West since the Cold War and avoid a new round of western sanctions.
Many voters appreciate Mr Poroshenko’s pragmatism and his apparent knack for compromise. He strongly backs closer ties with the 28-nation EU, but also speaks about the need to normalise ties with Russia.
“He is a very smart man who can work hard compared to others, and he is also a businessman and knows that compromises are necessary even if unpleasant,” 55-year old Kiev teacher Larisa Kirichenko said.
Meanwhile, it emerged that Italian photojournalist Andrea Rocchelli, 30, and his Russian interpreter had been killed in eastern Ukraine while covering fighting between government forces and pro-Russia insurgents. They died in the Slovyansk area, scene of some of the most intense battles in recent weeks.