Vladimir Putin won Russia’s presidential election by a landslide amid growing controversy, early exit polls suggest. Putin scored nearly 60 per cent of the vote, according to two surveys of voters. But claims of widespread violations made by opposition and independent observers are already gathering force.
Opposition groups are gearing up for a massive rally in Moscow on Monday as numerous reports of so-called ‘carousel voting’ – where busloads of voters are driven around to cast ballots multiple times – are being examined by Golos, Russia’s leading independent elections watchdog
Even before Russians cast their votes in polling stations, the current prime minister and former president looked set to be returned to the Kremlin with more than 50 per cent of the vote.
By midday in Moscow, the independent elections watchdog group had recorded more than 1,000 complaints of irregularities across the country.
Vladimir Putin is a ‘ruthless’ dictator whose days are numbered, David Miliband said today as Russians go to the polls.
The former foreign secretary warned it would be wrong to underestimate the ‘intelligent’ leader but predicted he will not survive a six-year term at the Kremlin.
Mr Miliband chose to make the robust attack in The Sun on Sunday, a move that will be a shot across the bows of Labour figures who are trying to distance themselves from the News International stable.
In an article for the newspaper, he wrote:
‘Whether or not Vladimir Putin wins today, he will not be celebrating a fourth term in office six years from now.
‘Whoever wins the election today, one thing is clear: Russia will not be the same.
‘The people of Russia have spoken up, and a wise leader would listen.’
They ranged from questionable voter registration lists to non-functioning web cameras to buses believed to be carrying so-called ‘carousel voters’ from precinct to precinct.
‘These are not going to be honest elections, but we must not relent,’ Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union who has grown increasingly critical of Putin, said as he cast his ballot.
‘Honest elections should be our constant motto for years to come.’
Mr Putin, cast his own vote at a Moscow polling station and arrived looking sombre with his wife, Lyudmila. Speaking afterwards to the Russian newspaper Izvestia, he said: ‘I’m expecting a good turnout, because presidential elections are an important event. I am confident that people will act responsibly.’
If Mr Putin fails to achieve more than 50 per cent of the vote he will face his nearest rival in a run-off.
Allegations of widespread vote fraud in last December’s parliamentary elections set off an unprecedented wave of massive protests against Mr Putin, who has remained Russia’s paramount leader despite stepping down from president to prime minister four years ago due to term limits.
The protests, the largest public show of anger in post-Soviet Russia, demonstrate growing frustration with corruption and political ossification in Putin’s Russia.
In response to the accusations Mr Putin has responded by installing webcams in each of the country’s 90,000 polling stations, but they have already come up against complaints today.
But despite the increased dismay, opinions polls have shown Putin positioned to easily defeat four other candidates and return to the post he held in 2000-2008.
Mr Putin presided over a significant growth in Russia’s prosperity and growing stability that contrasted with the disorder and anxiety of the 1990s, when Boris Yeltsin led Russia’s emergence from the wreckage of the Soviet Union.
‘Under Boris Nikolayevich, life was simply a nightmare, but, you know, now it’s OK. Now it’s good, I’m happy with the current situation,’ said 51-year-old Alexander Pshennikov, who cast his ballot for Mr Putin at a Moscow polling station.
But other voters were tired of the heavy-handed ways of the one-time KGB spy.
Natalya Yulskaya, 73, said she voted for billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov as a protest gesture against Mr Putin.
‘I know the KGB will be in power … but I gave it a try,’ she said.
Putin has dismissed the protesters’ complaints, portraying them as a minority of urban elitists and as dupes of Western countries that he claims want to undermine Russia.
But, sensitive to the galvanised opposition, he ordered installation of web cameras at all of Russia’s more than 90,000 polling stations.
Mr Putin’s disdain for the protesters became more marked in the last week of campaigning, as he publicly suggested the opposition was willing to kill one of its own figures in order to stoke outrage against him.
That claim came on the heels of state television reports that a plot by Chechen rebels to kill Mr Putin right after the election had been foiled.
Some of Mr Putin’s election rivals dismissed the report as a campaign trick to boost support for him.
Protests after the election appear certain.
‘People in Russia are not going to recognise Putin’s victory in the first round,’ Alexei Navalny, one of the loosely knit opposition’s most charismatic figures, declared flatly last week.
Mr Putin has promised to appoint Mr Medvedev prime minister if he wins the presidency in order to pursue his reform ideas, but many regard Mr Medvedev as lacking the hard-edge political skills to be an effective reformer.
None of the other candidates have been able to marshal a serious challenge to Putin.
A mid-February survey by the independent Levada Center polling agency found Putin getting more than 60% support – well above the 50% needed for a first-round win.
The Communist Party candidate, Gennady Zyuganov, got support of about 15%, according to the survey, which claimed accuracy within 3.4 percentage points.
The others – nationalist firebrand Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Sergei Mironov of A Just Russia and Prokhorov – were in single digits.