Voters across Ukraine went to the polls Sunday to elect regional leaders amid widespread frustration over a sagging economy and stalled reforms nearly two years after a revolution here in the capital.
Exit polls showed low turnout, estimated at about 36 percent early Sunday evening, in a vote seen as a referendum on the leadership of President Petro Poroshenko. Elections were scrapped entirely in Mariupol, a major port city on the Sea of Azov, because the local election committee said the ballots had been printed by a regional oligarch who backs an opposition party.
"The main theme of the day is disillusionment," said Balazs Jarabik, an expert on Ukraine and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "No one is voting."
Large street protests in Kyiv prompted by anger over corruption overthrew the government of then-President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014. Poroshenko, a billionaire confectionery magnate, and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk headed a self-described "kamikaze government" that promised to carry out extensive reforms at a breakneck pace.
Ukraine's conflict with Russia last year dominated headlines. Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed the Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 and backed separatists in a conflict with government troops in Ukraine's southeast that has left 8,000 dead and hundreds of thousands displaced.
But at polling stations in Kyiv on Sunday, voters were most concerned with rising prices, the devaluation of the national currency and persistent corruption, which some say is worse than before.
At a polling station on the city's outskirts, Nadezhda Sokolova, 57, said she voted for the Opposition Bloc, seen as a successor to Yanukovych's party, to "send a message" to Poroshenko.
"What good is freedom if you can't buy bread?" she asked rhetorically.
Dissatisfaction is also high among the activists who led the 2014 revolution, called the Euromaidan for short, of whom more than 100 were gunned down in the street days before Yanukovych was overthrown.
Yegor Sobolev, an activist and now head of the anti-corruption committee in parliament, said Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk had maintained corrupt systems and dallied on reforming the Ukrainian prosecutor's office.
"Corruption is an even greater danger to this country than Putin," he said.
Yatsenyuk, in particular, has been battered by accusations that his close political allies are corrupt. His party, the People's Front, was polling so poorly ahead of the elections that it decided to skip them.
In an interview in his office, Lev Partskhaladze, the first deputy chairman of the Kyiv regional administration and a political ally of Poroshenko, said reforms were moving ahead but would take time to be completed.
The Kyiv regional government did not have enough money to pay large salaries to new employees, he said, and it was not realistic to fire everyone who served under the former president.
Opposition parties, many representing the interests of Ukrainian oligarchs, were acting "unconstructively" without presenting reasonable alternatives, he added.
"You can either be a populist or you can be a realist," said Partskhaladze, who was leafing through glossy fliers detailing school reforms and other new programs. "Populists never last long in power."
Despite setbacks, some said the elections marked a step forward for Ukraine.
"The elections are healthier and are more transparent," said Serhiy Leshchenko, an investigative journalist who was elected to parliament with Poroshenko's party, citing greater public outrage over vote manipulation ahead of the elections. "Of course, the process is not finished."
A liberal registration process allowed an overwhelming 132 parties to take part in the vote, Ukraine's election commission announced. In Kyiv, voters could choose from one of 40 parties for the regional government and one of 29 candidates for the city's mayor.
"It's just kasha," meaning a mess, said one young voter, Oleh, 26, who did not give a surname. Kasha is the Ukrainian word for buckwheat porridge.
Elections did not take place in the regions of Ukraine controlled by separatists. Hundreds of thousands of people who fled to other regions of Ukraine did not vote.
Andrew Roth, Natalie Gryvnyak, The Washington Post
Related materials: Local elections 2015