MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s presidential election was tainted Sunday by unprecedented pressure on voters to turn out and incidents of suspected ballot box stuffing — a barely democratic exercise that will grant Vladimir Putin another six years of power.
His opponents have called the election a farce, but his millions of fans hail the 65-year-old former KGB officer for restoring Russian greatness and defending their proud nation from a hostile outside world.
Putin is facing seven challengers on the ballot but the outcome of the vote is pre-ordained, given his high popularity ratings. The major goal for Russian authorities is producing a big turnout that will hand Putin the legitimacy he craves and provide a convincing mandate for his fourth term. Sunday’s election is expected to further embolden the Russian president both at home and in world affairs.
Casting his ballot in Moscow, Putin seemed confident of victory, saying he would consider any percentage of votes a success.
“The program that I propose for the country is the right one,” he said.
Given the lack of competition, authorities are struggling against voter apathy — and have put many of Russia’s 111 million voters under intense pressure to cast ballots.
Yevgeny, a 43-year-old mechanic voting in central Moscow, said he briefly wondered whether it was worth voting.
“But the answer was easy … if I want to keep working, I vote,” he said. He said his bosses haven’t asked for proof of voting but he fears they will. He spoke on condition that his last name not be used out of concern that his employer — the Moscow city government — would find out.
Across the country in the city of Yekaterinburg, a doctor also said she was being coerced to vote.
When she hadn’t voted by midday, “The chief of my unit called me and said I was the only one who hadn’t voted,” said the doctor, Yekaterina, who spoke on condition her last name not be used because she fears repercussions.
Yevgeny Roizman, the mayor of Yekaterinburg, told The Associated Press that local officials and state employees have all received orders “from higher up” to make sure the presidential vote turnout is over 60 percent.
In Moscow, first-time voters were being given free tickets for pop concerts, and health authorities were offering free cancer screenings at selected polling stations.
Voters appeared to be turning in out in larger numbers Sunday than in Russia’s last presidential election in 2012, when Putin faced a serious opposition movement and electoral violations like multiple voting, ballot stuffing and coercion marred the voting. Voting fraud was widespread in Russia’s 2011 parliamentary vote, triggering massive protests in Moscow against Putin’s rule.
Voters cast ballots from the Pacific coast to Siberia and Moscow. Voting will conclude at 8 p.m. (1800 GMT; 2 p.m. EDT) in Kaliningrad, the Baltic exclave that is Russia’s westernmost region, and initial results are expected soon afterward.
Election authorities said turnout nationwide Sunday was 34.7 percent at noon Moscow time.
But online groups set up to record voting violations reported hundreds of problems Sunday that cast a shadow over the official turnout figures.
Observers including opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s representatives, the Golos monitoring group and ordinary Russians posted images online of apparent voting violations. Some examples: 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 to boost turnout and a huge pro-Putin board inside a polling station.
Some 145,000 observers were monitoring the voting in the world’s largest country, including 1,500 foreigners and representatives from Navalny’s movement. Navalny himself is barred from running due to a conviction he calls politically motivated.
Russian authorities had appealed to patriotic feelings by holding Sunday’s election on the anniversary of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula — so tensions in Ukraine clouded the presidential vote.
Ukraine security forces blocked the Russian Embassy in Kiev and consulates elsewhere after the Ukrainian government refused to let ordinary Russians vote, drawing angry protests from Russian officials.
Ukraine said the move was to protest voting Sunday in Crimea, whose annexation is still not internationally recognized.
Ukrainian leaders are also angry over Russian support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, where fighting that has killed at least 10,000 people since 2014 continues.
Polls show that most Russians view the takeover of the Black Sea peninsula as a major achievement despite subsequent Western sanctions. Putin also revved up his popularity by taking on Islamic State extremists in Syria.
“Who am I voting for? Who else?” asked Putin supporter Andrei Borisov, 70, a retired engineer in Moscow. “The others, it’s a circus.”
He expressed hope that Putin will continue to stand up to the United States and the West and will work on improving living standards at home.
The eight presidential candidates were barred from campaigning Sunday, but much-loved entertainers appealed to voters in a televised message to fulfil their civic duty. Voters also faced billboards celebrating Russian greatness — a big theme of Putin’s leadership.
Putin travelled across Russia pledging to raise wages, pour more funds into the country’s crumbling health care and education and modernize dilapidated infrastructure.
Presidential challenger Ksenia Sobchak, a 36-year-old TV host, urged Putin’s critics to “come together” and vote instead of boycotting, as opposition leader Navalny has recommended.
The higher the support for Putin in Sunday’s vote, “the tougher the system” Russians will face in his new term, Sobchak told reporters after voting.
Critics think Sobchak has the tacit support of the Kremlin so that the election appears more democratic, which she denies. She is the only candidate who has openly criticized Putin in the campaign.
As U.S. authorities investigate alleged Russian interference in President Donald Trump’s 2016 election, Moscow has warned of possible U.S. meddling in the Russian vote.
And sure enough, the Central Election Commission claimed Sunday it had been the target of a hacking attempt early in the voting day. The commission said authorities deterred the denial of service attack but gave few details of how serious it was.