MOSCOW, March 19 – Vladimir Putin cruised to victory in Russia’s presidential election on Sunday, giving him another six years in power as Moscow’s relations with the West plunge to new Cold War lows.
Putin, who has ruled Russia for almost two decades, won more than 75 percent of the vote according to preliminary results, but the opposition cried foul.
It reported ballot stuffing and other cases of alleged fraud as the Kremlin pushed for high turnout to give greater legitimacy to Putin’s historic fourth term.
The Russian strongman ran against seven other candidates, but his most vocal critic Alexei Navalny was barred from the ballot for legal reasons and the final outcome was never in doubt.
“I see in this (result) the confidence and hope of our people,” Putin said in an address to crowds of supporters on a square next to the Kremlin after exit polls put him on track for a resounding victory.
“Our thoughts will turn to the future of our great country and the future of our children,” said the man who is already Russia’s longest-serving leader since Stalin.
About 107 million Russians were eligible to cast ballots and the central election commission said turnout was 60 percent three hours before polls closed in Moscow, after the authorities used both the carrot and the stick to boost participation.
Selfie competitions, giveaways, food festivals and children’s entertainers were laid on at polling booths in a bid to create a festive atmosphere around the election.
But employees of state and private companies reported coming under pressure to vote, while students were threatened with problems in their exams or even expulsion if they did not take part, according to the opposition-leaning Novaya Gazeta newspaper.
According to central election commission data with half of votes counted, Putin took 75 percent of the vote, well ahead of his nearest competitor Communist Party candidate Pavel Grudinin at 13.2 percent.
Results for all other candidates, including former reality TV host Ksenia Sobchak and ultra-nationalist firebrand Vladimir Zhirinovsky were forecast to be in single figures.
The election was held as Russia faced increasing isolation on the world stage over a spy poisoning in Britain and a fresh round of US sanctions just as it gears up for the football World Cup in the summer.