Moscow - Vladimir Putin cruised to victory Sunday for another six-year presidential term after an election that was long on spectacle and short on suspense.
From the Arctic to the International Space Station, Russia rolled out an elaborate presidential-election-day display designed to show the breadth of Putin's public support as he extended his tenure for a fourth term to 2024.
Putin's opponents on Sunday's ballot included a nationalist, a Communist, and two liberals. But Putin barely campaigned, opposition activist Alexei Navalny was barred from the ballot, and reports of ballot-stuffing and people ordered to vote by their employers rolled in throughout the day.
With about two thirds of the ballots counted, more than 75 percent were for Putin, according to the Central Election Commission. The runner up was Communist Party candidate Pavel Grudinin with 12.7 percent.
"Success awaits us!" Putin told supporters in central Moscow. "Together, we will get to work on a great, massive scale, in the name of Russia."
The biggest question as Russians went to the polls on Sunday was the level of turnout,and uncertainty on the final tally lingered into the night in Moscow. While independent surveys show that most Russians continue to approve of Putin as president, a lack of suspense or popular opposition candidates threatened to keep people home. The Kremlin, analysts say, was looking for high turnout to deliver legitimacy for another Putin term.
At 6 p.m. Moscow time, Russia's Central Election Commission said, nationwide turnout stood at 59.9 percent - just above the level in the 2012 election at that time.
Russian cities have been plastered with billboards touting Sunday's election - "Your country, our president, our choice!" Some cities made public transportation free on Sunday, and social-media posts from Russia's far-flung regions showed free food and giveaways at polling places. In Khabarovsk in Russia's Far East, the regional government organised a food festival to coincide with the vote that, at one polling place, was to include a "presidential breakfast" featuring skim-milk oatmeal with regional pine nuts.
Putin himself cast his ballot at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. Asked what result he was hoping for, he responded: "Any that gives me the right to fulfill the duty of president."
Russian state TV broadcast images of lines of Russian beachgoers voting in Thailand, a polling place in the mountains of Dagestan, mothers casting their ballots at a maternity ward, and a helicopter delivering ballots to remote settlements in the Arctic. A Russian on the International Space Station was reported to have voted while in orbit. A state TV journalist reporting live from the southern city of Rostov-on-Don cast his ballot on camera - "I have done my civic duty," he said.
The election was being held on the fourth anniversary of Russia's annexation of Crimea - a move core to Putin's domestic brand as a fearless defender of Russian interests. The Ukrainian territory that Russia seized in March 2014 was voting Sunday for the Russian president for the first time after an intense propaganda campaign on the territory warning of war and same-sex marriage as the possible consequences if Putin's power weakened.
Critics described the vote as a charade, and opposition activist Navalny has been urging his supporters to boycott the vote ever since he was barred from the ballot in December. The independent Golos election-monitoring group broadcast a video from the city of Krasnodar that it said showed people being forced to vote by their employers. "They told us at work" to go vote, one of them said.
"Tell yourself: I don't want to be a part of this," Navalny urged his 2 million Twitter followers ahead of the vote. "I don't want elections without a choice. I won't vote for Putin or for those whom Putin picked as his sparring partners."
Online, videos of ballot stuffing at polling stations across Russia surfaced throughout the day. One such video, taken outside Moscow, showed two election officials repeatedly dropping ballots into a box in the center of the room.
The Moscow Region Election Commission later said that both of the women seen in the video are facing criminal charges and that the ballot box has been sealed and will not be counted. Other videos published Sunday showed ballot stuffing in Chechnya, Dagestan, and the Sakha Republic.
While several outspoken Putin opponents were on the ballot, including liberals Ksenia Sobchak and Grigory Yavlinsky, many potential voters who dislike Putin stayed home to avoid legitimizing the election. Daria Suslina, 20, said she decided to skip the chance to vote in a presidential election for the first time in her life after getting numerous appeals to do so by text message and at work.
"The pressure to go and vote was disgusting," Suslina, a student who works part-time at a state research and manufacturing company, said. "The whole thing - the elections today - seems so artificial, I don't want to be a part of it."
At a polling station in central Moscow, a rush of midday voters lined up nearly out the door of a school and filled up three floors of steps to a crowded room with a handful of voting booths. Outside the polling station, a 31-year-old who identified herself by her first name and patronymic, Anna Sergeyevna, said she voted for Putin.
"I like how he's led the country for a long time," she said. "He showed that our team is the good one."
Election Day was even complete with allegations of foreign meddling. A cyberattack originating in 15 different countries hit the website of the Central Elections Commission overnight, according to commission chairwoman Ella Pamfilova, the Interfax news agency reported.
As with prior elections, the elections commission rolled out foreign "observers" to testify to the fairness of the vote. Among them: Kline Preston IV, a Nashville lawyer who has done business in Russia and previously said he introduced a prominent Russian senator to the president of the US National Rifle Association. Preston was in Crimea earlier this week, where he told local journalists that "Crimea was, is, and will always be part of Russia."
"In a lot of ways we've got something to learn from them," Preston said in a phone interview from the city of Vladimir outside Moscow, where he was touring polling places. "I think there's a lot more fraud in our system."
The Washington Post