Kiev: War-weary Ukrainians voted on Sunday in an election that is likely to install a pro-Western parliament and strengthen President Petro Poroshenko`s mandate to end separatist conflict in the east, but could fuel tension with Russia.
People wrapped up warmly on a cold, clear day to vote in the first parliamentary poll since protests in the capital Kiev last winter forced Moscow-backed leader Viktor Yanukovich to flee and ushered in a pro-Europe leadership under Poroshenko.
In eastern regions controlled by the army, soldiers armed with automatic rifles and wearing bulletproof jackets guarded polling stations under the yellow and blue Ukrainian flag.
There was no voting in areas held by pro-Russian rebels who will underline their autonomy with a separate leadership election on Nov. 2.
"There was shelling all yesterday as we were preparing the voter lists," said Nadezhda Danilchenko, a member of the election committee at a polling station in Volnovakha, a town about 50 km (30 miles) south of Donetsk in east Ukraine.
"Either they (the separatists) were practising their shooting or they`re trying to intimidate us."
By mid-afternoon, the voter turnout was 38 percent, though it was not clear whom the apparently low turnout would favour.
Poroshenko, a 49-year-old billionaire confectionery tycoon, went to a town in the Donetsk region held by the army to show support for troops in the east, where a truce has been in force since Sept. 5 and there were no big attacks on election day.
A loose political grouping that backs Poroshenko is expected to become the leading force in the 450-seat assembly, giving him a mandate to pursue his peace plan for the east and carry out deep reforms sought by Ukraine`s European Union partners.
"All these people are waiting for peace and we are together with them," Poroshenko told Reuters. "I think that we will have an absolutely new parliament."
Poroshenko`s forces may not win an outright majority in voting on party lists and individual constituencies, but he should be able to form a coalition with partners such as Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk`s People`s Front as most big parties are pro-European, anti-Russian and favour a united Ukraine.
"We have a unique opportunity for the first time to get a Ukrainian parliament which would lead Ukraine towards Europe and towards NATO," said Radical Party leader Oleh Lyashko, a populist whose support Poroshenko may need.
Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, a Poroshenko rival, said Ukraine "must become a peaceful and successful European country" in honour of the more than 100 people killed in anti-Yanukovich protests in February as well as fallen "patriots" in the east.
With diminished influence of pro-Russian groups and pursuing a clear European integration agenda, it will be one of the most radical parliaments since Ukraine gained independence in 1991.
The emergence of a strong parliament committed to a united Ukraine could put new strains on ties with Russia, which Kiev blames for backing the rebels in a conflict that has killed more than 3,700 people and devastated the economy.
A gas pricing row with Russia which has the potential to disrupt supplies to European Union countries via Ukraine also rumbles on unresolved despite a meeting between Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Poroshenko called the snap election to clear out Yanukovich loyalists, some of whom are running for an ex-fuel minister`s Opposition Bloc, and add legitimacy to his pro-Western moves.
Many parties have enlisted war veterans and "Euromaidan" activists as candidates which will add to the strong patriotic and nationalist tone of the new parliament.
"I don`t think it`s a good thing if a lot of military get into parliament but there`s a war going on and it`s dictating what laws we have," said Sofia Didkovskaya, 36, voting in Kiev.
The protests last winter were broadly supported by the West but denounced by Russia as a coup after Yanukovich`s fall. A month later, Russia annexed Crimea and separatist rebellions, supported by Russia, erupted in the industrialised east.
In the ensuing crisis, the United States and its Western allies have imposed sanctions on Russia.
After Yatseniuk warned of possible "terrorist" attacks, police were out on force to guard polling stations, candidates and party headquarters across the sprawling country, which had a population of 46 million before the annexation of Crimea.
Only a handful of the 29 parties running are expected to reach the 5 percent level required to enter parliament. Only 423 of the 450 seats will be elected as voting did not take place in some parts of Crimea and the east.
Voting is scheduled to end at 8:00 p.m. (1800 GMT) with exit polls to be released almost immediately. Results are expected to take some hours to compile.