Oct 25, 2:10 PM EDT

Ukraine pauses before decisive vote


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MARIUPOL, Ukraine (AP) -- 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 seen changing composition completely 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.

Speaking in a televised address Saturday, Poroshenko said the election would lead to a "full reset of power" and enable the formation of a reform-minded legislature.

"It is very difficult to press on the gas pedal with reforms when hundreds of deputies are simultaneously and in a coordinated fashion slamming the brakes," he said.

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.

Shelling has continued in eastern Ukraine despite a truce being called early September and 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.

The mood is particularly tense in Volnovakha, which is 60 kilometers inland from Mariupol and on the very fringes of the rebel front. District election commission head Anna Yeremchenko said election workers were staying away out of fear, putting the vote at risk.

"They are afraid of hostilities. There is a lot of weaponry here, we can hear artillery strikes," Yeremchenko said.

On Saturday afternoon, the sound of artillery fire falling near the town could be heard for at least 30 minutes.

Vyacheslav Kryazh, a deputy commander of the pro-government Kiev-2 battalion, said the chairwoman of an election commission in the area was abducted Saturday. Kryazh said his men later tracked down the kidnapper and detained him.

Authorities have also received information that rebels will seek to provoke unrest on the election day, said Viktor Chelovan, who supervises the battalions operating under the Interior Ministry.

"They will use all means at their disposal to either derail the vote in the Donetsk or Luhansk regions or to cast a shadow over the legitimacy of the election," he said.

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.

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.

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, or DPR, 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.

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

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