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Presidential Vote in Russia Sure to Give Putin 6 More Years

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MOSCOW — Russians went to the polls on Sunday to vote in what was more a referendum on giving President Vladimir V. Putin another six years in office than an actual competitive race.

With cold winter temperatures covering the vast, continental country, more than 110 million people were eligible to vote from the distant Kamchatka peninsula in the Far East to the European enclave of Kaliningrad, where the last polls were due to close at 8 p.m. on Sunday.

Gone were the Soviet days when there was just one name on the ballot and the winner habitually harvested 99 percent of the vote. The spirit was similar, however, with pictures of Mr. Putin and his campaign slogan, “Strong president, strong Russia,” blanketing the country.

Mr. Putin is popular and expected to win big, the only question being how many voters will participate in a hollow exercise unlikely to bring any significant change. The size of the turnout will be interpreted as the strength Mr. Putin’s mandate.

The government has tried to create a carnival atmosphere with music, food and prizes to convince more people to visit the polls.

After casting his ballot early in central Moscow, Mr. Putin was asked what turnout he sought. “Any that gives me the right to perform the duty of president,” he said. “I am sure I am offering the right program to the country.”

The president barely bothered to campaign, except to stress his constant theme that Russia was a besieged fortress and that he was the only man to keep it safe by rebuilding its arsenal and projecting power beyond its borders, especially in challenging the United States.

Election Day was moved to March 18, the fourth anniversary of Russia’s seizure of Crimea, to emphasize that theme.

The poisoning of a former Russian double agent and his daughter in Britain with a rare nerve agent on March 4 was seen in the West as a confirmation of Mr. Putin’s pugnacious tactics, prompting Britain to kick out 23 Russian diplomats. Russia responded with a tit-for-tat expulsion of 23 British diplomats on the eve of the vote.

Russia has suggested, improbably, that various Western nations might have been behind the attack in an effort to bruise Mr. Putin’s election prospects.

There is zero chance of his prospects taking any real damage, with the outcome preordained and the only serious competitor, Aleksei A. Navalny, barred from running.

“It is not a democracy but they have to go through the motions,” said Konstantin von Eggert, a Russian television talk show host and veteran political analyst. “Real competition would make his win more significant, but he does not want to go that far.”

Mr. Putin, 65, has been the most powerful man in Russia since he first became president in 2000, stepping aside once to serve as prime minister to get around term limits. The vote today will keep him in office until 2024, making him the longest-serving leader since Stalin.

In the absence of further constitutional changes, he cannot run again, so many analysts see the current vote as marking the start of the fight to choose his successor.

Mr. Putin sought an unprecedented mandate from this election of 70 percent of the vote with a 70 percent turnout. He reportedly wanted to beat his results from the last election, in 2012: nearly 64 percent of the vote from a turnout of more than 65 percent.

Thousands of monitors are expected to fan out across the country. Some 1,500 were sent by right-wing European and other groups sympathetic to Mr. Putin. By far the bulk, however, will come from political organizations opposed to him and looking for abuses.

“The rigging happens not with the aim of increasing the number of votes for a certain candidate, but to show that he was elected by the majority, at least 50 percent,” said Grigory Melkonyants, the co-chairman of Golos, an independent monitoring organization that has been largely driven out of business by the Kremlin. “With that, nobody should question the legitimacy of this person.”

In the past, abuses have occurred through various methods including multiple voting or ballot stuffing, especially in some 15 regions with a long history of bending election rules. This election was supposed to be cleaner than previous votes because dubious results in 2012 prompted large street demonstrations, something the Kremlin wants to avoid.

State employees, pensioners and residents of rural areas, all of whom depend heavily on the government, tend to vote for Mr. Putin out of a combination of enthusiasm, habit and blackmail. Mr. Putin also has strong support among the young, but they are the least likely to vote.

Asked what matters to them, most Russians would tell you it is an improvement in their living conditions, with higher wages or pensions, better medical care and better roads. Russia suffered through an economic recession in 2015 and 2016, with real wages dropping for the past four years.

Although Mr. Putin promises domestic improvements, it is unclear where the money will come from. The emphasis of his March 1 state of the nation speech was on a more patriotic theme: making Russia a forced to be reckoned with.

“There is no need to speak about roads, we are talking about national security, national interests, which require consolidation and loyalty to the flag,” said Lev Gudkov, the director of the Levada Center, an independent polling organization whose work was also limited by the government.

Mr. Putin is genuinely popular as the man who restored stability and a measure of prosperity to Russia after the decade-long collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.

His closest competitor who is actually running is Pavel N. Grudinin, 57, the Communist Party candidate and the millionaire director of the Lenin State Farm, a successful former Soviet cooperative. Mr. Grudinin has vowed to rebuild Russia by restructuring its economy and nationalizing key industries controlled by oligarchs. The emergence of a possible protest vote for Mr. Grudinin prompted a Kremlin smear campaign against him, even though he remained distant in the government-run polls.

Another high profile candidate is Ksenia A. Sobchak, 36, the daughter of Mr. Putin’s political mentor and a reality TV star turned political journalist.

Unable to even run, Mr. Navalny called on his supporters to sit out the vote. Stanislav M. Dmitrievsky, a human-rights activist in the northern city of Nizhny Novgorod, supported the boycott. On Friday, he was sentenced to 20 days in jail for organizing an illegal march to mark the third anniversary of the assassination of the Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov.

“When one of the participants determines who will be his competitors, that cannot be called an election,” he said before he was jailed.

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Source: NYT > World

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