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All Eyes On Three Front-Runners As Ukraine Presidential Vote Offers Wrinkle On Familiar Challenge

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A combo photo shows presidential candidates Petro Poroshenko,Yulia Tymoshenko and Volodymyr Zelenskiy

KYIV -- Ukrainians are casting their ballots on March 31 to pick a new president from an unprecedentedly broad field whose front-runners offer starkly different resumes.

Pollsters suggest Ukraine's 35 million eligible voters are desperate to elect a leader who can steer the country to peace after five years of fighting in eastern Ukraine and tackle runaway corruption to help lift the former Soviet republic out of political stagnation.

The biggest question entering the possible two-round contest was whether voters were prepared to hand the presidency to a political novice who has made a showbiz career of poking fun at politicians or would rally around one of the dozens of current or former officials on the ballot -- which includes incumbent President Petro Poroshenko, former generals and spooks, nationalist firebrands, and a handful of people who played prominent roles in the popular upheavals that have ousted two Ukrainian administrations in the past 15 years.

Ukrainians and outsiders hope the eventual winner this time can bring much-needed stability and reform to a country that is a key transit route for Russian gas and an ally in Western efforts to keep a resurgent Russia in check.

Polling stations opened across the country at 8:00 a.m. local time (5:00 a.m. UTC) and will close at 8:00 p.m., with exit-polling data announced soon afterward.

Around 39,000 police officers are providing security at polling stations nationwide. In addition, reserves from members of special forces police units and the National Guard are on standby in case of serious incidents.

Ukraine's Interior Ministry said it had received more than 1,600 complaints about electoral violations two hours before polls were due to close.

It said the reported violations included unauthorized campaigning at polling stations, attempts to bribe voters, and removal of ballots.

By midafternoon (1500 in Ukraine), more than 45 percent of eligible voters had cast ballots, according to the Central Election Commission (CEC).

The commission said by late afternoon "no systemic violations" had been reported.

“There are isolated instances, but they are classic for any voting process in any election campaign,” CEC Secretary Natalia Bernatska told journalists.

The greatest number of violations were registered in Kyiv, the Donetsk, Kharkov, and Dnepropetrovsk regions, the ministry said.

The police added that it had opened eight criminal cases over electoral violations.

Live Blog: Ukraine Votes

A recent surge in the polls for Poroshenko tempered claims that the country was ready to turn the page on the incumbent, whose entrepreneurial success helped him ride a wave of national mobilization and pro-Western sentiment to a landslide victory after war broke out against Russia-backed separatists five years ago.

But the surprising front-runner in pre-election polls was 41-year-old comic and sitcom "president" Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who has parlayed his prime-time prominence as a "Servant Of The People" into a serious challenge to the political establishment.

One of the last pre-election polls, by the Kyiv Institute of Sociology (KIIS), showed Zelenskiy's voter support at 20.9 percent, followed by Poroshenko at 13.7 percent and two-time Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko at 9.7 percent.

Untested Entertainer

Even if Zelenskiy maintains his lead and reaches a second round, as most observers expect, ultimate victory could prove difficult for the politically untested entertainer.

Joking around with journalists after casting his ballot, Zelenskiy said he was in an upbeat mood and had "voted for a very worthy guy."

"A new life is beginning, a normal life, a life without corruption, without bribes -- life in a new country, the country of our dreams," Zelenskiy said.

At a Kyiv polling station, the entire Dobriyvechir family of four told RFE/RL they voted for Zelenskiy, with daughter Anastasia, 19, saying she believed the comic-turned-candidate is a "good man" who shares the same values in real life as the fictional president he plays in his hit sitcom Servant of the People.

"He's going to make our country better" like he does in his show, she said. Her mother, Svitlana, said that Zelenskiy was the obvious choice for her, because life hasn't become better under incumbent Poroshenko. "Life has gotten worse in the past five years," she said. "Utility prices have gotten higher and pensioners like our grandmother can't afford to live."

"Poroshenko delivered visa-free travel and the Tomos" -- the declaration that created a new, independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine -- "but otherwise he didn't do enough for us," Svitlana added.

Veteran campaigners Poroshenko and Tymoshenko, a onetime gas-industry entrepreneur who was jailed over a gas deal with Russia after her second-place finish in the 2010 presidential race, both have hefty party structures behind them.

Ukrainians' interest in the election has reportedly risen over the past year, with many citing the simmering war, national unity and reconciliation, and the fight against corruption as their highest priorities.

In the eastern city of Mariupol, near the front line of the conflict that has cost some 13,000 lives over five years, a soldier who was casting his ballot said the war is "the main question for everyone."

"The country is tired of this situation, people are tired," 22-year-old soldier Sergiy told AFP.

Zelenskiy has appealed to young people in particular with carefully crafted social-media messages like the crowdsourcing of a potential cabinet, and taken a tough line against corruption, including proposing a lifetime ban on public office for cheats and a tax amnesty to encourage the repatriation of offshore assets.

Critics have questioned Zelenskiy's ties to a controversial exiled oligarch whose TV station was blitzing viewers with his programs ahead of the voting. But it was unclear whether those attacks or reports linking Zelenskiy to ongoing Russian businesses and accusing him of a failure to disclose a multimillion-dollar Italian villa would tarnish his transparency credentials in the eyes of voters.

Poroshenko has suffered from generally high unfavorability ratings over perceived failures to enact political and economic reforms or tackle widespread corruption, however. And more recently, some of the ultranationalists who have enjoyed relative impunity under his wartime administration turned on Poroshenko over a military-procurement scandal involving alleged profiteering by the son of a longtime ally.

Chocolate Mogul

But the 53-year-old chocolate mogul has also kept the broadly popular aim of further integration with Europe high on his agenda, and earlier this year he helped win autocephaly for an Orthodox Church of Ukraine to buoy his nationalist credentials.

After voting alongside his family on March 31, Poroshenko said a fair vote was essential for Ukraine's progress.

"This is an absolutely necessary condition for our moving forward, for the return of Ukraine into the family of European nations and our membership of the European Union and NATO," Poroshenko said.

At his final campaign rally, on March 28 in Lviv, Poroshenko told the crowd that the country had "just started to make up the losses after the crisis" brought on by Russia's 2014 invasion but vowed that "the worst, friends, is definitely over," according to AFP.

Tymoshenko, 58, who was among the leaders of the 2004-05 Orange Revolution against a flawed presidential vote, campaigned heavily on anti-Poroshenko sentiment and appeals to populism, including pledges to cut gas prices to households by half within a month of taking office and drastically raising pensions.

None of the other 36 candidates consistently polled over 10 percent, although possible dark horses include former gas executive and ex-minister Yuriy Boyko, an opposition leader who has advocated repairing relations with Russia.

All three of the leading candidates are seen as generally pro-Western.

"Ukraine in any case is moving in the direction of the West," dpa quoted Vadim Karasyov, director of the Institute of Global Strategies, as saying in the run-up to the election.

Five years removed from street unrest that unseated pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych after he tacked away from closer cooperation with the European Union, opinion polls suggest an overwhelming majority of Ukraine's 44 million people still want dramatic change in domestic policy.

But the result will resonate well beyond Ukraine, which abuts Russia to the east, Belarus to the north, a handful of EU members to the west, and Moldova and the strategically important Black Sea to the south.

Moscow could be watching closely for opportunities to undermine Ukrainian defiance in the face of the separatist threat that Moscow has stoked since Russian troops invaded Ukraine's Crimea in 2014 or to chip away at Western support for Kyiv.

A spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose administration has depicted Kyiv's post-Euromaidan leadership as a "junta," this week declined to say "whether the election could be recognized as illegitimate," according to TASS.

Ukrainian security officials warned in the final week of campaigning that "Russia intends to carry out unprecedented cyberattacks" against the country's election supervisors "in order to cast doubt on the legitimacy" of the vote. ​

Observers like the Atlantic Council's Brian Mefford have predicted that the voting "is likely to be the cleanest and least fraudulent election in Ukraine's history."

But Olha Aivazovska, who heads the Opora civil network, which has alleged campaign-funding violations and supervisory and other problems, suggested that Ukrainians were showing the "lowest level of confidence in the electoral process in the history of elections in Ukraine."

If no one wins a majority outright, the top two candidates advance to a runoff on April 21.

The World Bank warned last year that Ukraine's economic "outlook depends on the pace of reforms and on reaching an agreement on the [International Monetary Fund] program," which has extended billions in credit to Kyiv since the conflict broke out five years ago, crippling Ukraine's economy and devaluing its currency.

With reporting by Christopher Miller in Kyiv, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, AFP, Reuters, and TASS
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