Key presidential campaign starts in conflict-torn Ukraine

KIEV (AFP) – Campaigning began for a key presidential vote in Ukraine on Monday with President Petro Poroshenko facing an uphill re-election battle among voters disillusioned with corruption and the slow pace of reforms.

Poroshenko, whose government is locked in a conflict with Moscow-backed insurgents in the industrial east, trails two-time former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko in the latest opinion polls.

Voting will take place on March 31, with a second round three weeks later if no candidate takes more than 50 per cent.

Poroshenko, a 53-year-old chocolate tycoon, sailed to victory in a May 2014 election after a popular uprising ousted the Moscow-backed regime of Viktor Yanukovich.

He promised to pivot the former Soviet country of nearly 45 million people towards the West and has sought to push through ambitious reforms.

Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko. – AFP

But critics say the economy is in tatters, corruption is rampant and Poroshenko has done little to rein in fellow oligarchs.

One poll this week showed 16.1 per cent of expected voters planning to vote for Tymoshenko, ahead of Poroshenko with 13.8 per cent.

After the 2014 uprising, Moscow annexed Crimea and supported Russian-speaking separatists in Ukraine’s east, in a conflict that has claimed the lives of more than 10,000 people.

The war has been a huge burden for the country’s struggling economy, with Poroshenko forced to rely on assistance from the West.

Recently, the International Monetary Fund confirmed it would give Kiev a USD4 billion, 14-month loan.

Poroshenko is widely expected to stand for re-election even though he has not yet confirmed he is running.