Polls opened in Ukraine on Sunday for a crucial presidential election that is supposed to save the country from an all-out civil war.

The strongest candidate according to opinion polls is billionaire businessman Petro Poroshenko, who advocates a western-oriented foreign policy while also promising to mend relations with Russia.

Trailing behind is former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, whose Fatherland party dominates’ Ukraine’s current pro-western leadership.

If none of the 21 candidates gets more than 50 per cent, there will be a second round of voting on June 15.

Voting was expected to be extremely restricted in the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, where pro-Russian separatists have vowed to do everything to prevent it.

Fighting between separatists and government forces prompted the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to cancel its observer mission there.

A source in the elections watchdog said safety concerns made it “very very unlikely” that the short-term monitors would be deployed.

About 5 million of the country’s 35 million voters live in the two conflict regions. Another 1.7 million voters from Crimea won’t take part in the vote since the Black Sea peninsula was annexed by Russia earlier this year.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Moscow will respect the election, but he stopped short of calling it legitimate.

In Kiev, voters will also elect the capital’s mayor. Polls favour former boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, who has unsuccessfully run for the largely ceremonial office twice before.

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