Russian President Vladimir Putin won a fourth presidential term with nearly 77 percent 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 percent of the vote counted, the Central Election Commission said Monday that communist Pavel Grudinin came in a distant second with 11.9 percent. Third was ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky with 5.7 percent. The only candidate to openly criticize Putin during the campaign, liberal TV star Ksenia Sobchak, won just 1.7 percent.
Putin’s most serious rival, opposition leader Alexei Navalny, was barred from the race because of a fraud conviction widely seen as politically motivated.
The electoral commission said official turnout was 67 percent, but the figure marred by widespread account of workers being coerced to vote and numerous incidents of ballot stuffing.
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 percent of the vote in the 2000 presidential election, 71 percent in 2004 and 64 percent in 2012.
The massive victory gives Putin new confidence to stand up to the West.
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 US 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. Sobchak dismissed his accusations and, in turn, blamed what she described as his divisive rhetoric for her low results. Both were silent Monday, and their future plans are unclear.
Putin’s electoral power has centered 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.”
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 defenses. 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 would face a challenge of how to diversify an economy still dependent on oil and gas and improve medical care and social services in regions far removed from the cosmopolitan glitter of Moscow.
He would need to make a choice between grooming a preferred successor or staying at the helm beyond 2024, either by scrapping term limits or by shifting into a new position of power. Asked late Sunday if he intends to initiate changes in the constitution, he answered that he has no such plans “yet.”