VLADIMIR Putin won a resounding victory in Russia’s presidential election yesterday, exit polls showed, securing a new six-year term in the Kremlin and a mandate to deal with opposition protests after a vote opponents said was marred by serious fraud.
Two exit polls, released after voting ended at 1700 GMT, forecast the prime minister would win 59.3 and 58.3 per cent of the votes, easily enough to make a run-off against the second-placed candidate unnecessary.
His nearest rival, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, fell short of 20 per cent in both exit polls. Mr Zyuganov said his party would not recognise the official results of the election, calling it “illegitimate, dishonest and untransparent.”
Golos, Russia’s leading independent elections watchdog, said it received numerous reports of “carousel voting,” in which busloads of voters are driven around to cast ballots multiple times.
Alexei Navalny, one of the opposition’s most charismatic leaders, said observers trained by his organisation also reported seeing extensive use of the method.
Golos said it had registered a total of 3,100 violations.
Oksana Dmitriyeva, a Duma deputy from Just Russia party, tweeted that they were witnessing “numerous cases of observers being expelled from polling stations” across St Petersburg just before the vote count.
Unlike Moscow and other big cities, where independent observers were present, election officials in Russia’s North Caucasus and other regions were largely left to their one devices. The opposition said those regions have experienced particularly massive vote rigging in the past.
Mr Putin’s party swiftly dismissed fraud allegations, which will be repeated at opposition protests starting today, when official results are released. “This is the cleanest election in Russia’s entire history,” said Stanislav Govorukhin, his campaign chief.
But Mr Putin, 59, was expected to portray his return to the presidency after four years as prime minister as strong public backing against the protesters.
But his opponents said voting in many parts of the vast country was skewed in his favour and vowed to press on with the biggest protests since he rose to power 12 years ago.
“We do not consider these elections legitimate,” said Vladimir Ryzhkov, a leader of the opposition protesters, who plan a new rally against Mr Putin in Moscow for today.
The main challenge for the man credited by many Russians with rebuilding the country’s image and overseeing an economic boom, was to win outright in the first round. This he achieved by a clear margin. The exit polls put Mr Zyuganov on target to win about 18 per cent, and nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, ex-parliamentary speaker Sergei Mironov and billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov were all under 10 per cent.
Some voters said Mr Putin, was the tough national leader the country needed.
“I voted for Putin because he was a good president [from 2000-8] and our children were looked after and that’s all. That’s how I feel,” said Maria Fedotova, a 92-year-old grandmother.
Mr Putin has remained Russia’s dominant leader and its most popular politician since stepping aside in 2008 to make way for his ally, Dmitry Medvedev, because he was barred from a third straight term.
But some voters are tired of his macho antics, and a system that concentrates power in his hands. They fear he could win another term in six years and rule until 2024 – almost as long as Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
“They are stealing our votes,” said Valentin Gorshun, a patient in Moscow hospital number 19, where more than 90 per cent of votes went to United Russia party in December. “It is probably the same at all hospitals. I think they are preparing a huge falsification. Emperor Putin has decided everything.”