Under the cloud of a bitter war in their nation’s east, Ukrainians on Sunday elected the most pro-European parliament in their country’s 23-year-old history, firmly backing an effort to steer their nation away from Russia’s orbit.

The work of the new legislature will be critical to Ukraine’s prospects for overcoming its towering challenges. The election was a final step to empower President Petro Poroshenko, who was elected in May after protests toppled Ukraine’s previous leader and unleashed the worst conflict between Russia and the West since the Cold War.

The new parliament, whose ranks will include a host of new faces, will have to help Ukraine resolve difficulties that would faze even the most experienced statesman. The country’s economy is ravaged by war. A cutoff of Russian natural gas threatens to create a heating crisis as early as January. And Russian-backed rebels firmly control key portions of the country’s industrial heartland in the east.

“I am proud of my people. I am proud of Ukraine,” Poroshenko told supporters in Kiev late Sunday. “At last we will have a pro-Ukrainian, pro-European coalition.” Earlier in the day, dressed in military fatigues, he visited a polling station in Kramatorsk, an eastern Ukrainian town formerly held by rebels that is about 25 miles from the front lines.

Two exit polls showed the party led by Poroshenko carrying 22 percent to 23 percent of the vote, with the party led by Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk narrowly behind them. The two leaders said that they would seek to form as broad a coalition as possible, a process that could take days or weeks. Five other parties appeared to have cleared the 5 percent hurdle to make it into parliament, including a group made up of allies of ousted president Viktor Yanukovych.

Final results from voting will not be known for days, but the exit polls show that Ukraine’s President Poroshenko is on his way to forging a strong coalition government. (Reuters)

There was little sign that the election outcome would significantly alter Poroshenko’s policy ambitions, with his prospective coalition partners supporting the fundamentals of his pro-European course. Election observers from the National Democratic Institute and the International Republic Institute said that the vote proceeded mostly free of disruptions, although several political parties alleged vote-buying and other small-scale irregularities.

But the pro-European outcome was made possible in part because the most Russian-friendly parts of Ukraine are no longer under Kiev’s control, ratifying and underlining the deep divisions that helped feed the conflict. No vote took place in the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed in March, nor in rebel-controlled parts of eastern Ukraine. Those areas account for about 5.3 million of Ukraine’s roughly 36 million registered voters, according to Opora, a Ukrainian civic organization that monitors elections.

Underlining the basic disunity in the nation of 45 million people, rebel leaders on Sunday announced that they had jumped forward a time zone, switching their clocks from Kiev time to Moscow time.

Rebel leaders plan to hold elections of their own next Sunday, further solidifying the split between their territory and the rest of Ukraine. A Sept. 5 cease-fire somewhat quelled the fighting but also solidified rebels’ territorial gains, and Ukrainian leaders have said that it may take years before they regain control over the easternmost tip of their country. Border guards last week fanned out over the new internal frontier.

Sunday’s election raises the risk of renewed fighting in the east, because some of the parties campaigned on promises of pushing back the rebels, and Yatsenyuk, although he is a Poroshenko ally, has been critical of the cease-fire deal. The rebels, for their part, have said that they hope to conquer further chunks of Ukrainian territory.

In August, Poroshenko declared the early parliamentary elections, hoping to win a full mandate to fight corruption, overhaul the economy and move toward Europe. The current parliament is a holdover from the rule of Yanukovych, and in January it passed widely reviled laws that gave him the power to crack down on dissent.

The old parliament approved basic anti-corruption legislation this month after rejecting several earlier efforts to tighten laws on financial transparency.

Voters in Ukraine hope for peace and an end to war as they cast their vote in a key election that is expected to install a pro-Western parliament. (Reuters)

The first challenge for Ukraine’s new lawmakers will come as early as Wednesday, when Ukraine and Russia again meet to try to resolve the standoff over natural gas shipments that leaves Ukraine at risk this winter of running out of the fuelthat is used for heating.

The Self-Help party, led by the mayor of the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, Andriy Sadovyy, appeared to place third in polling. It is made up of candidates who are largely new to national politics. The Opposition Bloc, a group largely composedof former members of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, captured about 8 percent, more than opinion polls had predicted but a sharp reversal from the 2012 elections, when the Party of Regions won 30 percent of the vote. Its base remained in the parts of easternUkraine that were still able to vote, suggesting that deep divides still exist even in united Ukraine. A party led by former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko also appeared to have narrowly made it into parliament.

The final parliamentary outcome will vary slightly because of Ukraine’s complicated system, in which half of the legislature’s 450 seats are directly elected by local districts.

Despite the coming parliamentary turnover, many in Ukraine were pessimistic about their nation’s future, saying Sunday that they saw little progress in the months since Poroshenko’s election and that a culture of widespread corruption had not been diminished by the months of turmoil.

Even some candidates from Poroshenko’s own party on Sunday were fighting against what they said was vote-buying by a Poroshenko ally.

“We saw the attempt to buy votes. We called the police. We made an official report,” said Serhiy Leshchenko, a muckraking journalist who ran for parliament as a member of Poroshenko’s party. People were being paid about $15 to vote for a candidate in the Kirovohrad region, about 140 miles southeast of Kiev, he said. After he filed the police report on Sunday, Leshchenko said, seven men attacked his van with large rocks, breaking several windows.

Many voters in Kiev on Sunday said they were weary of the war in the east, which has killed 3,700 people since April, according to U.N. estimates. On a sunny, brisk day in which temperatures hovered just above freezing, some said they had expected more changes to come from the protest movement centered on Kiev’s Independence Square.

“We see corruption at all levels, starting from at the nursery school and going up to the presidency,” said Dmitry Sidarov, 25, who works in his family’s construction business and said he had just voted for Poroshenko’s party. “Changes will happen, and they will happen after the war ends.”

Oksana Fishuk, an engineer, said she had hoped for more after the protests.

“You can’t feel any fundamental changes,” Fishuk, 40, said. “We want people to break the old schemes that lasted after the Soviet Union.”