, MOSCOW, March 5 – Russian leader Vladimir Putin on Monday reclaimed the Kremlin after a crushing victory in a presidential election but faced protests by the opposition who said the poll was undermined by fraud.
Putin secured almost 64 percent of the vote in Sunday’s election, winning back the Russian presidency which he held from 2000-2008 before his four-year stint as prime minister, the central election commission said.
His nearest rival, the Communist Party boss Gennady Zyuganov, trailed well behind with just over 17 percent of the votes cast, but Putin was set to face the latest in a series of mass opposition protests against his rule in Moscow later Monday.
Opposition leaders are expecting tens of thousands of people to rally in Pushkin Square to demonstrate for a “Russia without Putin” in a protest that has been sanctioned by the authorities but will take place amid heavy security.
In an unexpected move ahead of the protest, the Kremlin said outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev ordered a review of the conviction of tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose jailing the opposition sees as politically motivated.
Zyuganov denounced the elections as “crooked” while independent monitoring groups chronicled thousands of violations including cases of multiple voting and ballot stuffing.
“Vladimir Putin won the presidential elections by a wide margin but the task of increasing his legitimacy has yet to be solved,” said the Vedomosti business daily.
The opposition raised concerns about so called “carousel” voting where people cast multiple ballots at different polling stations using absentee voting documents.
“These elections cannot be considered legitimate in any way,” Vladimir Ryzhkov, one of the leaders of the protest movement, told state television after the results were announced.
Putin, whose new presidential mandate is for six years, will return to the Kremlin at a time of rapid social change in a Russia that is seeing an increasingly critical middle class and an explosion in Internet use.
But these concerns did not spoil Putin’s mood Monday night as he appeared before over 100,000 supporters just outside the Kremlin and appeared to wipe tears from his eyes, although he later claimed this was caused by the wind.
“We have won in an open and honest battle,” Putin said with his voice hoarse with emotion, standing on a stage alongside Medvedev on Manezh Square.
“I promised you we would win, we won. Glory to Russia!” Putin said, adding that voters had defeated provocations that aimed “to break up the Russian state and to usurp power.”
His supporters filled the square, spilling over into surrounding streets, waving Russian flags and chanting “Putin, Putin!” He later visited his election headquarters and shook hands with, hugged and kissed supporters.
Putin, who is set to be inaugurated in May, won 63.97 percent of the vote, well ahead of Zyuganov who won 17.18 percent, the election commission said based on a count from 98.47 percent of polling stations.
Third place went to tycoon-turned-politician Mikhail Prokhorov with 7.7 percent, a performance seen as a breakthrough as the billionaire had only announced his intention to run late last year.
Maverick ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a fixture in past elections, came fourth with 6.24 percent while former upper house speaker Sergei Mironov trailed in fifth place with 3.84 percent.
Turnout was 64 percent, according to the results published by the central election commission. The figure was down on participation of almost 70 percent in 2008 presidential elections but up on the rate from December 4 parliament polls.
However none of the candidates represented the protest movement that has held three massive protests in the last three months and whose followers look to alternative figures like anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny.