Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has claimed victory in Russia’s presidential election.
With tears rolling down his cheeks at a victory rally on Sunday, Putin said the Russian people had clearly rejected the attempts of unidentified enemies to “destroy Russia’s statehood and usurp power”.
“The Russian people have shown today that such scenarios will not succeed in our land,” said Putin, flanked by outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev. “They shall not pass!”
“I promised you we would win. We have won. Glory to Russia,” Putin told the rally attended by tens of thousands of supporters in central Moscow. “We won in an open and fair struggle.”
Putin led the pack in early results announced by the Russian central electoral commission seconds after polls closed in the country’s presidential election.
With half of the votes counted, Putin was leading by a landslide 63.4 per cent.
“It’s very clear that very many Russians have voted for Putin, but they’ve done so without the same enthusiasm they’ve had in the past,” Al Jazeera’s Jonah Hull said from Moscow.
“Either because they felt there was no viable choice, or because they had been convinced by the Kremlin rhetoric that Russia would crumble without him.”
Exit polls showed that Putin is set to win with a big majority, effectively ruling out a second round of voting.
He won 58.3 per cent of the vote according to an exit poll by the state-controlled VTsIOM research group. A survey by the Public Opinion Foundation put the figure at 59.3 per cent.
Al Jazeera’s Christopher True, reporting from Manezhnaya Square, said: “There is a mood of celebration here, with thousands of Russians enthusiastically hailing Putin’s victory.
“However, circling the crowds, thousands of grim-faced riot police and other security forces are surrounding the Kremlin, apparently defending it from some unseen threat.
“Amid fears of an angry backlash from the opposition, Russia’s government is making sure it is prepared for any eventualities.”
Putin’s Communist rival Gennady Zyuganov – a dour but seasoned lawmaker who is running for the fourth time is polling in second place with 17.1 per cent of the vote according to the most recent results released by the CEC.
Zyuganov called the vote “crooked, absolutely unfair and unworthy,” while a senior leader of the protest movement, Vladimir Ryzhkov, said “these elections cannot be considered legitimate in any way.”
The opposition is calling for a rally in Moscow on Monday.
“In a bid to counteract fraud, two web cameras have been installed in each of the country’s 90,000 polling stations, one showing the ballot box, the second showing election officials,” our reporter said.
“Putin is widely expected to win the vote in the first round and all eyes are on whether he will continue with business as usual or bow to some of the protesters’ demands.”
Alexei Navalny, an opposition protest organiser and well-known blogger, meanwhile, alleged that “obvious and irrefutable” violations were taking place at polling stations, and that vote counting was “neither fair nor truthful”.
“These are not going to be honest elections, but we must not relent,” Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union who has grown increasingly critical of Putin, said as he cast his ballot.
Golos, a Western-funded monitoring group, said it had already registered 2,283 reports of violations nationwide.
Lilia Shibanova, the executive director of the group, told Al Jazeera there had been “a lot of abuses” in Moscow, central Russia and Baskortostan.
“On the positive side, the web cameras and transparent ballot boxes have surely helped and it is the first time we have been able to monitor the elections in Chechnya, Dagestan and the Caucasus,” she said.
An interior ministry spokesperson said there had been no major violations. Ria Novosti news agency is quoting a source in that Dagestan election commission as saying the results at that polling station where apparent ballot staffing was observed through the live web cams – will be canceled.