Vladimir Putin scored a decisive victory in Russia’s presidential election to return to the Kremlin and extend his hold on power for six more years.
His eyes brimming with tears, Mr Putin defiantly proclaimed to a sea of supporters that they had triumphed over opponents intent on “destroying Russia’s statehood and usurping power”.
Mr Putin’s win was never in doubt, as many across the vast country still see him as a guarantor of stability and the defender of a strong Russia against a hostile world, an image he has carefully cultivated during 12 years in power.
But accounts by independent observers of extensive vote-rigging looked set to strengthen the resolve of opposition forces whose unprecedented protests in recent months have posed the first serious challenge to Mr Putin’s heavy-handed rule.
Another huge demonstration was planned for tonight in central Moscow.
Mr Putin claimed victory last night when fewer than a quarter of the votes had been counted. He spoke to a rally just outside the Kremlin walls of tens of thousands of supporters, many of them government workers or employees of state-owned companies who had been ordered to attend.
“I promised that we would win and we have won!” he shouted to the flag-waving crowd. “We have won in an open and honest struggle.”
Mr Putin, 59, said the election showed that “our people can easily distinguish a desire for renewal and revival from political provocations aimed at destroying Russia’s statehood and usurping power”.
He ended his speech with the triumphant declaration: “Glory to Russia!”
The West can expect Mr Putin to continue the tough policies he has pursued even as prime minister, including opposing US plans to build a missile shield in Europe and resisting international military intervention in Syria.
Exit polls cited by state television predicted he would get about 59% of the vote. With more than 90% of precincts counted nationwide, Mr Putin was leading with 65%, the Central Election Commission said. Complete results were expected later today.
Communist Party candidate Gennady Zyuganov came a distant second, followed by Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team whose candidacy was approved by the Kremlin in what was seen as an effort to channel some of the protest sentiment.
The clownish nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and socialist Sergei Mironov trailed behind. The leader of the liberal opposition Yabloko party was barred from the race.
“These elections are not free. ... That’s why we’ll have protests tomorrow. We will not recognise the president as legitimate,” said Mikhail Kasyanov, who was Mr Putin’s first prime minister before going into opposition.
The wave of protests began after a December parliamentary election in which observers produced evidence of widespread vote fraud.
Protest rallies in Moscow drew tens of thousands in the largest outburst of public anger in post-Soviet Russia, demonstrating growing exasperation with the pervasive corruption and tight controls over political life under Mr Putin, who was president from 2000 to 2008 before moving into the prime minister’s office due to term limits.
Golos, Russia’s leading independent elections watchdog, said it received numerous reports of “carousel voting”, in which busloads of voters are driven around to cast ballots multiple times.
After the polls closed, Golos said the number of abuses appeared just as high as in December.
“If during the parliamentary elections, we saw a great deal of ballot-box stuffing and carousel voting ... this time we saw the deployment of more subtle technologies,” said Andrei Buzin, who heads the monitoring operations at Golos.
Alexei Navalny, one of the opposition’s most charismatic leaders, said observers trained by his organisation also reported seeing carousel voting and other abuses.
A first-round victory was politically important for Mr Putin, serving as proof that he retains majority support.
“They decided that a second round would be bad, unreliable and would show weakness,” Mr Navalny said. “That’s why they ... falsified the elections.”
There was no evidence that the scale of any election fraud was high enough to have pushed Mr Putin over the 50% mark and saved him from a run-off.
His campaign chief Stanislav Govorukhin rejected the fraud claims, calling them “ridiculous”.
Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, has become increasingly critical of Mr Putin’s rule. “These are not going to be honest elections, but we must not relent,” he said after casting his vote.
Mr Putin has dismissed the protesters’ demands, casting them as a coddled minority of urban elites manipulated by leaders working at the behest of the West.
His claims that the United States was behind the protests spoke to his base of blue-collar workers, farmers and state employees, who are suspicious of Western intentions after years of state propaganda.