Three months after a revolution that overthrew pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych, Ukrainians head to the polls today to replace the ousted leader, believed to be living in exile across the border in Russia.
The election’s result is an almost foregone conclusion. Twenty-one candidates are in the race for the top spot but Odessan oligarch Petro Poroshenko, nicknamed the “Chocolate King” because of investments in the confectionary industry, is the near certain winner.
His closest rival — the so-called Gas Princess, Yulia Tymoshenko — the only real issue in contention in terms of vote outcome today is whether the candy billionaire can secure the 50 percent of votes needed under the Ukrainian system to avoid a second round showdown.
But while the winner may already be decided, in the Donbas region there is a major question mark over whether citizens will get to vote at all.
Armed pro-Russian rebels in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, who have controlled large pockets of the two eastern oblasts for more than six weeks, have declared the presidential election illegal after holding their own dubious referendum on May 9.
Speaking at a press conference Saturday, one of the leaders of People’s Republic of Donetsk called the vote “illegal” and said that that the “Kiev junta” were illegally occupying the territory fledgling state.
According to the rebels, who held their referendum under the security of armed militia, and without independent monitors, more than 90 percent purportedly voted in favor of an independent state giving a supposed “official mandate” to the so-called People’s Republic of Donetsk.
In Donetsk and Luhansk, voting has been disrupted by pro-Russian groups. Here, several men dressed as troops from the Vostok Battalion, a special Russian military unit based in Chechnya, fired rounds into the air in Donetsk.
Just hours before the presidential vote was due to start the leaders of the two rebel-controlled oblasts announced a formal partnership, under the name of Novorossiya and the establishment of a new joint defense group, the "People's Front."
A Kiev-backed anti-terror operation, aimed at ousting the pro-Russia militia groups operating in the area, has failed to make substantial inroads into the rebel-held territory, who have fortified their positions and appeared on the streets with heavy weaponry, including RPGs and automatic guns.
Fighting between the two groups across the region has become an increasingly regular occurrence over the past two weeks and has killed dozens, including civilians.
In some areas, such as Sloviansk and south Luhansk the rebels’ foothold means that an election simply won’t take place.
The south of Luhansk oblast was lost more than a week ago in terms of holding an election one security source told VICE News.
“The military have formed a partition between the north and south in a bid to stop the separatists’ spread. But control in the army’s buffer zone is also patchy” he added.
On Friday, fighting flared up in two villages in the region and at least two people were killed and several more reportedly injured. In one town the battle may have been a result of the Ukrainian army’s attempt to retake an election district commission building, which was taken by the rebels the day before.
Meanwhile rumored plans to set up a military “safe zone” nearby Sloviansk, the rebels’ stronghold, were residents could go and cast their ballot papers in a safe haven, may well have been thwarted by fierce fighting on the outskirts of the city Saturday.
The picture is equally bleak, if not more so, in the neighboring Donetsk region where the rebels first started their power seize on April 6, snatching the city council building in the administrative capital of the oblast. Since being ousted from his office, the Kiev appointed governor of the region — Sergey Taruta, a coal and steel oligarch, has been hotel hopping in a bid to exercise control over local affairs, but it seems he has barely kept his head above water.
Pro-Russia rebels have attacked election commissions across the region seizing buildings and voting materials, all the way from Mariupol, a industrial port city in the southeast, to Donetsk city itself.
Many election officials, most of who are volunteers, say that their polling stations do not have the vital equipment needed to carry out the election.
“We still don’t have any ballot papers. We are waiting for a miracle, but if it comes we will need to prepare everything in just a few hours,” Yelena an election official in district 45 told VICE News.
Aleksandr, a representative of presidential candidate Sergey Tigipko and the head of a Donetsk largest district election commission, which accounts for 173,000 voters, told VICE News a similar story. “We are in limbo, we haven’t had any concrete instructions about what to do, so tomorrow is an unknown situation at the moment,” he said.
Aleksandr also added that during a regional meeting on Friday, head teachers had been warned not to allow their schools to be used as polling stations for the vote.
Even if some polling stations do open, it is unclear who will provide security on the day. The loyalty of the police across the region has wavered with many defecting to the side of the rebels, and local officials have been unable to offer any concrete information about realistic alternatives.
A spate of kidnappings and violence against those perceived as supporting the vote has driven many underground. One Svoboda activist, 44-year-old Alexey Deniko, was kidnapped at gunpoint more than two weeks ago.
He is believed to have a gunshot wound to the leg and is thought to be held by the rebels in Gorlivka. On Saturday, another district commission head of district 60 was reportedly kidnapped by rebels who burnt documents and materials relating to the vote when they stormed the building.
On Saturday night, an announcement by the Central Election Commission that volunteers responsible for manning that station were excused from coming to work on polling day seemed to be a de facto admission of defeat by the state that the vote would not go ahead in any meaningful sense in certain pockets. Under normal circumstances its an offense for officials to no-show on the day.
While the rebel-controlled region only accounts for around 15 percent of the country’s voters, failure to hold a free and fair vote across the country will present tough challenge to the new president.
The government in Kiev, brought to power by revolution not the ballot box, desperately needs the legitimacy boost, particularly among the citizens in east.