Ukraine voters have taste for the ‘Chocolate King’

A BILLIONAIRE known as the Chocolate King has emerged as strong favourite to win a Ukrainian presidential election tomorrow set against a backdrop of death and violence in the country’s east.

Billionaire confectioner Petro Poroshenko meets prospective voters. Picture: Reuters

Polls put Petro Poroshenko, who made a fortune in the confectionery trade, well ahead of a gaggle of 21 rivals as Ukraine prepares for the fraught election.

An opinion poll by Kiev’s Institute of Sociology this week gave the billionaire 34 per cent of the vote while the second-placed candidate, the former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, garnered 6 per cent.

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If Mr Poroshenko manages to secure more than 50 per cent of the vote he will avoid having to fight a run-off election with the runner-up.

Ukrainians go to the polls despite a masked escalation in fighting between government and separatist forces in the east of the country, and the danger that the explosive political situation could result in people being unable to vote.

Sixteen army soldiers died in an ambush on Thursday and more heavy fighting was reported yesterday.

Separatist movements that control two regions in eastern Ukraine comprising about 15 per cent of the country’s total land mass have also called for an election boycott, and it remains unclear just how the vote will go ahead.

However, in a blow to theseparatists, many of whom favour union with Russia, Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, said his country would “respect” the election.

Moscow had maintained that Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s former president who fledKiev while still in office following deadly clashes earlierthis year, was the country’slegitimate head of state.Mr Putin’s statement will come as welcome news to Ukraine and also Mr Poroshenko, who faces a herculean tasks – if elected – of helping to hold a country verging on civil war together, and saving its economy from imploding.

A former foreign and economy minister, the “Chocolate King” is popularly regarded as capable politician but also as a man who could bring a measure of unity and stability to a country that has been on the political rack since anti-government demonstrations broke out in November.

Mr Poroshenko has stressed he favours strengthening ties with the European Union, and will fight – at least in the courts – Russia’s annexation of Crimea but at the same time wanting good relations with Moscow.

“Russia isn’t our opponent, but our partner,” he said in an interview with the Russian newspaper, Novaya Gazeta.

The 48-year-old from the southern town of Odessa first started making money importing cocoa beans during the twilight years of the Soviet Union, but piled on the cash after Ukraine’s independence by moving into the confectionary trade, and his Roshen Group is now the country’s biggest producer of sweets and chocolate bars.