Putin claims crushing victory in Russian presidential vote
Election victory comes amid escalating tensions with the West
Russian President Vladimir Putin won a fourth presidential term with nearly 77 per cent of the vote — his highest score ever and a massive mandate to pursue his nationalist, assertive policies for another six years in power.
Near-final results released Monday showed that the other seven candidates were far behind Putin in Sunday's voting.
Observers reported widespread ballot stuffing and unprecedented pressure on Russians to vote, but that is unlikely to seriously damage Putin given his popularity and his tight control over Russian politics.
With 99.8 per cent of the vote counted, the Central Election Commission said Monday that communist Pavel Grudinin came in a distant second with 11.8 per cent. Third was ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky with 5.6 per cent. The only candidate to openly criticize Putin during the campaign, liberal TV star Ksenia Sobchak, won just 1.6 per cent.
Ballot stuffing, coerced voting
Putin's most serious rival, opposition leader Alexei Navalny, was barred from the race.
The electoral commission said official turnout was 67 per cent, but the figure was thrown into question by images circulating online of ballot stuffing and nationwide accounts of workers being coerced to vote.
Putin has never faced a serious threat to his rule since he came to power on the eve of the new millennium. He won 53 per cent of the vote in the 2000 presidential election, 71 per cent in 2004 and 63 per cent in 2012.
The massive victory gives Putin new confidence to stand up to the West.
Escalating Cold War-like tensions
The election came amid escalating Cold War-like tensions, with accusations that Moscow was behind the nerve-agent poisoning this month of a former Russian double agent in Britain and that its internet trolls had waged an extensive campaign to undermine the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The accusations ultimately bolstered Putin among a populace that sees him as their defender against a hostile outside world and the embodiment of Russia's resurgent power on the world stage.
The election was such a foregone conclusion that Putin gave only a perfunctory victory speech and said nothing about what he will do for his country.
"We are bound for success," he said, to crowds near the Kremlin chanting: "Russia! Russia!"
Putin's victory puts his opponents in a tough spot.
Navalny called for a boycott but it's unclear whether that had any effect. He then clashed publicly with Sobchak on Sunday night, accusing her of being a Kremlin stooge. Both were silent Monday, and their future plans are unclear.
Putin's electoral power has centred on stability, a quality cherished by Russians after the chaotic breakup of the Soviet Union. But that stability has been bolstered by a suppression of dissent, the withering of independent media and the top-down control of politics called "managed democracy."
That included pressure on voters to fulfil their "civic duty."
Cameras obscured by flags
Two election observers in Gorny Shchit, a rural district of Yekaterinburg, told The Associated Press they saw an unusually high influx of people going to the polls just before 2 p.m. A doctor at a hospital in the Ural mountains city told the AP that 2 p.m. was the deadline for health officials to report to their superiors that they had voted.
Observer Sergei Krivonogov said voters were taking pictures of the pocket calendars or leaflets that poll workers distributed, seemingly as proof of voting.
Other examples from observers and social media included ballot boxes being stuffed with extra ballots in multiple regions; an election official assaulting an observer; CCTV cameras obscured by flags or nets from watching ballot boxes; discrepancies in ballot numbers; last-minute voter registration changes likely designed to boost turnout; and a huge pro-Putin sign in one polling station.
In his next six years, Putin is likely to assert Russia's power abroad even more strongly. He recently announced that Russia has developed advanced nuclear weapons capable of evading missile defences. The Russian military campaign that bolsters the Syrian government is clearly aimed at strengthening Moscow's foothold in the Middle East, and Russia eagerly eyes any reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula as an economic opportunity.
At home, Putin must face how to groom a successor or devise a strategy to circumvent term limits, how to diversify an economy still dependent on oil and gas, and how to improve medical care and social services in regions far removed from the cosmopolitan glitter of Moscow.