, MOSCOW, Mar 4 – Russians voted on Sunday in elections expected to see Vladimir Putin reclaim the Kremlin for a historic third term in the face of protests by the opposition bitterly contesting his 12 years of strongman rule.
Moscow police have drafted in thousands of extra officers into the capital for the elections, which the opposition has said will be followed by a new anti-Putin protest expected to rally tens of thousands of people.
Voters from Vladivostok on the Pacific to the Kaliningrad exclave on the Baltic cast their ballots in a marathon election stretched over 21 hours in which victory for 59-year-old ex-KGB spy Putin appears inevitable.
The main suspense is not the final result but whether Putin can win easily in the first round against his four rivals and if allegations of vote-rigging will spark a succession of protests to seriously challenge him.
“I’m choosing a new Russia. Everything is just beginning,” the first of Putin’s rivals to cast their ballot, the metals magnate turned politician Mikhail Prokhorov, said as he voted in the Krasnoyarsk region of Siberia.
With voting just getting underway in European Russia, turnout was already over 12 percent, the election commission said, with participation levels in the Far East indicating a higher turnout than in December’s parliamentary polls.
For some voters Putin is the man who saved Russia from descending into anarchy and poverty after the chaos of the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin. But for others he has suppressed civil society and long overstayed his welcome.
“I know Putin for practical actions, not words,” pensioner Zinaida Bykova told AFP in Vladivostok.
“We live under Putin’s hand already many years, and nothing is changing in the country,” said 45-year-old Yulia, who cast her vote for Prokhorov at a station in southwestern Moscow.
In a tense contest of rival protests, the Nashi (Us) pro-Putin youth group will try and seize the initiative with a mass rally outside the Kremlin walls on Sunday night that is expected to gather 20,000 people.
This will be followed on Monday night by an opposition demonstration of at least 30,000 people on the central Pushkin Square for “Russia without Putin”.
That rally has been sanctioned by the authorities but police have warned they will break up any unauthorised gatherings.
“We are going to respond to provocations with the full force allowed by law,” warned Moscow police chief Vladimir Kolokoltsev, whose force has brought in 6,300 extra officers from across Russia into the capital.
The protests mean Putin’s expected landslide may be shadowed by uncertainty unknown during his first two terms as president between 2000 and 2008, before he handed the Kremlin to Dmitry Medvedev and became prime minister.
Under a change to the constitution, the next presidential mandate will be six years.
“The possibility, even probability, of things going badly wrong for Russia during the next six years is real,” analysts at the London Chatham House think-tank said in a report that urged Putin to respond to social change.
Relative economic stability in Russia has created a growing middle class much more likely to be critical while the explosion in Internet use in the country has provided a new medium to denounce the excesses of the elite.
But despite the predictions of a rocky future for Putin, state-run pollsters have forecast he will win in the first round win with 60 percent of the vote, leaving his Communist rival Gennady Zyuganov trailing in second place with 15 percent.
Prokhorov and the flamboyant populist Vladimir Zhirinovsky are expected to battle for third place while the former upper house speaker Sergei Mironov is tipped to finish last.
The authorities have installed web cameras in 90,000 polling stations for the first time in an attempt to demonstrate transparency and combat allegations of cheating.
Voting in Moscow began with unprecedented participation by volunteer election monitors armed with cameras and phones, who vow to stop any dirty tricks such as falsifying results or stuffing ballots.