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Ukraine pauses before decisive parliamentary vote soured by specter of separatist conflict

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MARIUPOL, Ukraine — Ukraine braced for decisive parliamentary elections Saturday against the backdrop of unrest in eastern regions roiled by conflict between government troops and pro-Russian separatist forces.

Campaigning material was being taken down across the country in line with election laws ahead of a vote Sunday that pollsters say will be dominated by President Petro Poroshenko's party.

Parliament is set to change completely in composition with the former ruling party of ex-President Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted by a street revolt in February, set to disappear from the legislature.

Parties expected to enter into parliament all broadly share a pro-Western line and are united in their calls to tackle rampant corruption and undertake root-and-branch economic reforms. Skepticism remains strong toward a political elite that many Ukrainians continue to see as self-serving.

In areas near the main focus of fighting, the mood was subdued and turnout expected to be low. The east is where Yanukovych drew most of his support and one worry is that the voice of the population in this region could go unheard.

"The concern of whether this will be a free but also fair election, that is definitely one of the issues we are looking at," said Kent Harstedt, a coordinator for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly's observer mission.

In Mariupol, a government-controlled industrial port city near rebel-held areas in the eastern Donetsk region, residents revealed a blend of nervousness and resignation on the eve of the vote.

Despite a truce being called early September, shelling remains an almost daily constant in nearby areas, pushing thoughts of the future to the back of people's minds.

"The turnout is going to be low because people are disillusioned," said Yevhen Chulai, secretary of a local election commission in the city.

PHOTO: Election officials assemble ballot boxes at a polling station in the government controlled town of Mariupol, eastern Ukraine Saturday, Oct. 25, 2014. Ukrainian parliamentary elections will be held on Sunday. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
Election officials assemble ballot boxes at a polling station in the government controlled town of Mariupol, eastern Ukraine Saturday, Oct. 25, 2014. Ukrainian parliamentary elections will be held on Sunday. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)

Authorities are worried that rebels may seek to derail the election and police in the region have warned the public to be wary of possible attempts to sow unrest on the day.

Almost 36 million people have been registered to vote nationwide. Poll officials say 15 out of 32 district election commissions in the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk will not be operating over security concerns.

Mariupol lies behind lines of Ukrainian government troops and has become a relative safe haven for families fleeing from areas under rebel control.

Taras Shevchuk, a 27-year physical education instructor, left the town of Yenakiyeve two months ago but said he cannot vote in Mariupol as he has not been registered there.

Ambivalence over the relative merits of the warring sides fighting nearby is commonplace in the mostly Russian-speaking city of 450,000 people in a southwestern pocket of Ukraine that looks onto the Sea of Azov.

Vladislav Slobodyanin, 40, said that many previous supporters of the separatist rebel government that dubs itself the Donetsk People's Republic now support Ukrainian unity.

"Most people who were for the DPR have changed their mind now," Slobodyanin said. "I know people who were fervent DPR supporters. Now they think differently. They see what it (support for the DPR) can lead to."

However, Slobydyanin said some of his co-workers were still eagerly awaiting rebels to sweep into the city.

Political experts believe many erstwhile supporters of Yanukovych's Party of Regions will instead cast their vote for the Opposition Bloc, which includes numerous prominent figures from the former ruling group. It is uncertain the party will secure enough votes to overcome the 5 percent threshold required to enter parliament, however.


Associated Press writer Peter Leonard in Kiev, Ukraine, contributed to this report.

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PHOTO: Ukrainian army soldiers guard a district election commission as an election official carries ballots to a polling station in Volnovakha, a village on the front line of fighting between Ukrainian government forces and rebels, eastern Ukraine Saturday, Oct. 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
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