THE Russian president, Vladimir Putin, swept back into the Kremlin yesterday with a landslide election win that analysts said augured well for economic reform, but liberals fear could spell bad news for democracy.
Mr Putin’s victory, a foregone conclusion, gives the former KGB spy enormous powers, which he says he will use to pursue the economic reforms needed to drag Russia from the mire left after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
"I promise you, that for the next four years, I will work in the same mode," said Mr Putin. He thanked voters for turning out, and then he thanked those who supported him.
He promised to ensure further economic growth, strengthen civil society and media freedom. "All the democratic achievements will be guaranteed," he said.
The massive pro-Putin vote among the 109 million electorate reflected satisfaction with the stability and prosperity he had brought after the unpredictable rule of Boris Yeltsin.
Early partial results put Communist Party candidate Nikolai Kharitonov in second place with 14.3 per cent, and two others, the nationalist Sergei Glazyev and liberal Irina Khakamada, a strident Putin critic, trailing well behind with 4.7 and 4.6 per cent.
"After the election Putin has got both a mandate and the government instruments to be able to really follow through his policy agenda," said Roland Nash, the chief strategist at Renaissance Capital.
Other analysts said that it remained to be seen how Mr Putin would pursue economic reform, deliver on pledges to slash red tape and bring a measure of wealth to Russia’s masses, whose living standards plunged in the turmoil after the Soviet collapse.
Another crucial question is how Mr Putin deals with Russia’s post-Soviet super-rich in the wake of the arrest of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, now in jail on tax-evasion and fraud charges.
"The next big thing that we will be back focusing on is how this guy wants to deal with ‘oligarchs’ in his second term," said Al Breach, the chief economist at Brunswick UBS. Liberal critics say Mr Putin’s autocratic style, the war in Chechnya that goes largely unreported by Russian media, and the promotion of state security officials to senior positions pose threats to the future of democracy.
"I voted for Putin because he is going to win anyway, and what is the point in voting for someone else?" said financial inspector Yelena Chebakova, 31, one of a handful of early voters at a Moscow polling station.
Even before polling ended, the United States questioned the fairness of the campaign in which state-dominated media had given Mr Putin blanket coverage denied to his opponents.
"You’ve got to let candidates have all the access to the media that the president has," the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, said. "It’s not entirely clear to me why they go out of their way to keep opposition candidates from fully participating in the electoral process.
"It’s not good, but I don’t think it signals the total demise of democracy in Russia."
The only real threat to Mr Putin’s re-election had been that less than 50 per cent of the 109 million-strong electorate would vote.
After voting in Moscow alongside his wife, Lyudmila, Mr Putin made a last-minute appeal, saying that "much depends on this election" and that "the feeling of involvement must increase year after year".
In one Moscow district, a van cruised the streets with its loudspeaker proclaiming that voting is the way to "a dignified life and a bright future".
But hours before polls closed, electoral authorities said the threshold had been exceeded, making the vote valid.
Mr Putin now has few domestic obstacles. December’s election to the state duma, or lower house, was won by pro-Kremlin MPs. And Mr Putin’s government, appointed last week, is stacked with apolitical technocrats certain to do their president’s bidding.
He has earned repeated criticism from the West for human-rights abuses in Chechnya, where two bomb explosions were reported near polling stations. No-one was injured.
But financial investors have faith in Mr Putin to push the resource-rich country on to a new path of economic growth, even if democracy has to take second place.
"I’ve voted for Putin. Let him stay for four years more to finish what he has begun. Life here has become more worthy, Russia is looking better to the rest of world," said Marina, a shop-assistant in St Petersburg.
"We voted for Putin because under him there’s been stability in society, in the economy," said Mikhail Antonchik, a young miner who voted with his wife in Cheryomukhovo, a Ural Mountains village. "You can plan for the family."
But about one-fifth of Russia’s 144 million people live below the poverty line and the gap between rich and poor remains wide, stoking anger at the authorities.
Irina Kozhukhova, a 42-year-old radio factory worker in St Petersburg, said she had voted in that category. "I didn’t vote for Putin because I’ve seen no changes - neither in politics nor in the economy," she said.
Rival candidates and rights groups yesterday alleged vote-rigging in favour of Mr Putin, including pre-marked ballots and pressure on students and soldiers.
"The authorities are resorting to pressurising the electorate and abusing their powers to manipulate the vote," nationalist candidate Sergei Glazyev said.