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For Vladimir Putin and his team, it was a job well done. By means both fair and foul, by Sunday evening the President had eased a resounding election victory.
According to preliminary figures from the Central Elections Commission, Mr Putin had a record 75.01 per cent of the vote, with 50 per cent of the votes counted. His nearest challenger was the Communist Party candidate Pavel Grudinin, on 13.38 per cent, followed by veteran nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky on 6.34 per cent. The celebrity opposition candidate Kseniya Sobchak mustered just 1.43 per cent.
At 2300 local time [2000 GMT], the President appeared on Moscow’s central Manezh square to claim victory in front of thousands of cheering supporters. “You are my team,” he roared. “And our success is around the corner.”
But he hinted this would be his last election as President. The idea that he would return after another rotation as prime minister was “amusing,” he said: “Do you think I’m going to sit here until I’m a hundred?”
While the Kremlin bathed itself in champagne, the country’s two leading opponents descended into a shouting match live on air.
Kseniya Sobchak arrived at Aleksey Navalny’s election headquarters just before polls closed with an offer to join forces. On reflection, it was not the wisest move she could have made.
The man who was controversially barred from taking part in the election rejected her offer angrily. Ms Sobchak had become a willing “instrument” in the Putin system, he said: “You have become the champion of hypocrisy.”
Mr Navalny accused Ms Sobchak of admitting to being offered “tons of cash” to run in the elections and discredit the opposition. He said that she had also obstructed the work of his election observers in Kemerovo province. Ms Sobchak denied both accusations and claimed Mr Navalny’s strategy of boycotting the election had backfired.
With a split opposition, safe candidates and a no-risk campaign, the re-election of Vladimir Putin was a foregone conclusion.
All eyes were instead on the strength of turnout and the size of the winning margin.
In pre-election briefings, the Kremlin suggested it had lowered its initial turnout target of 70 per cent to 65 per cent. This was roughly the turnout recorded at the 2012 elections. Today’s figures looks like they will beat that.
As of 1800 Moscow time [1500 GMT], with three hours of voting remaining, the Central Elections Commission reported turnout at 60 per cent. Unusually, however, there were no final figures four hours after polls closed – indicating, perhaps, problems behind the scenes.
In Moscow, where Mr Putin is least popular, polling stations were certainly busy. There were even queues at some, although not always for the right reasons. Station 2204 drew particular attention for an unusually large number of voters. It was later discovered that students had transferred their votes there for the chance of winning a tablet computer.
The authorities missed few tricks. For ordinary Russians, it became a chance to enjoy free salami sandwiches, cut-price chicken legs, food tokens and discounted vodka. There were live performances, kids’ singing competitions and concerts. At one polling station, voters were offered the chance to load and unload Stalin-era ammunition before exercising their democratic right.
There were multiple and persuasive claims of fraud.
Observers working for the Alexei Navalny campaign said they had recorded “unprecedented” levels of what they claimed was forced voting. There are many examples of groups of voters – factory workers, policemen, soldiers, students – being delivered to voting stations on buses en masse.
There was evidence of more serious violations too, from ballot box stuffing to altered final result protocols. Some of it was captured on camera. In one monastery, nuns were recorded ticking boxes before handing ballot papers to their sisters to perform their holy duty. In several polling stations, video cameras seemed to have been deliberately covered – with balloons, retractable walls, and curtains.
As expected, there were reports of dubious electoral activities in Russia’s more lawless areas. In Dagestan, a group of men beat up election observers. While the observers were away, officials seemed to use the opportunity to stuff the ballot boxes with additional papers.
The Elections Commission confirmed two cases of ballot-stuffing in Moscow and the Moscow region. The Commission says it cancelled all the votes contained in both instances, and claims that the cases were isolated.
On a subjective level, examples of open electoral fraud seem to have been less widespread than in previous elections.
According to Vitaly Kovin, a committee member of the Golos election observer team, much of the manual work to increase turnout had been done in advance of voting day.
“The main issue seems to be forced mobilisation of voters, organised in the run-up, and it is very difficult to prove this,” he said. “The only way you can show it is if people declare that they have been forced to vote, and that hasn’t been happening.”
Independent election observer Sergei Skpilkin, who uses mathematical modelling to determine suspicious voting patterns, suggested that the real turnout was “3 or 4 per cent” higher than in 2012.
“The increase has in the main come from the use of the government machine to mobilise voters,” he claimed.
Mr Skpilkin’s models of previous election results showed a steady and marked suspicious voting patterns since in 2000. That seems to have stopped this year. “The level of falsifications does seem to be lower, and perhaps the lowest since the 2004 elections, or even the level of 2004,” he says.
For independent observer Konstantin Gaaze, the scale of Vladimir Putin’s victory contained few surprises.
“The election was his easiest task, easier than shaving in the morning, and does nothing to solve the hard ones, like having an economic strategy,” he said.
“The only thing it changes is Russia’s international course,” he adds. “The screws were tightened to give him his result, and the screws will tighten once again because of the result.”