Voter turnout in Russia’s presidential election exceeded the 50% threshold needed to make the vote valid, Russian news agencies quoted Central Election Commission chief Alexander Veshnyakov as saying hours before polls closed today.
Assured of winning a second term, incumbent Vladimir Putin was looking for a strong turnout to give him a powerful new four-year mandate. After casting his ballot, he made a last-minute appeal to voters amid Kremlin fears that the lack of real competition would keep people at home.
“The feeling of involvement must increase year after year,” Putin said after voting alongside his wife, Lyudmila, in Moscow. “Voters must understand the extent of responsibility when they make their choice. Much depends on this election.”
Veshnyakov said overall turnout was about 51.8% at 4pm Moscow time (1pm Irish time), the Interfax and ITAR-Tass news agencies reported. More than half of Russia’s 109 million registered voters must cast ballots for the election to be valid.
Veshnyakov said that turnout by late afternoon was higher than at the same time during the December parliamentary elections, which saw 56% participation, according to election officials, and gave Putin an obedient parliament. Speaking four hours before the last of the polls closed, he predicted final turnout would exceed 60%.
Overall, the election was to last 22 hours, stretching over 11 time zones, before ending at 8pm (6pm Irish time) today in the enclave of Kaliningrad.
Most Russians considered the election a one-man show. In the run-up to election day, Putin received blanket coverage on state-controlled television and his five challengers had little opportunity to woo voters.
Galina Viktorovna, a 47-year-old kindergarten teacher from St. Petersburg, said she cast her ballot for Putin “because I know him better then other candidates,” echoing a reason cited by many voters.
Some liberals called for an election boycott as the only way for Russians to express dissatisfaction with Putin. Voters could also choose to cast their ballots “against all”.
Cities have been blanketed with posters urging Russians to go to the polls. Officials have also tried to lure voters with incentives in the Pacific port of Vladivostok, bread was being sold at polling booths for 6.5 rubles (about 12p) cheaper than in nearby stores.
Sergei Zubov, 52, a Moscow engineer, cast a ballot for nationalist Sergei Glazyev because of his hard line against oligarchs, a small group of businessmen who made fortunes after the break-up of the Soviet Union in often murky deals.
Another voter, Zhanna Myasnikova, voted for Glazyev in St. Petersburg because she’d heard so often that Putin would win “that I had a kind of feeling of protest”.
While the Far East was reporting heavy turnout, voters in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don and Vladikavkaz, near Chechnya, were coming only in small numbers.
Viktor Kravchenkov, a Rostov construction worker, said he wouldn’t bother voting. “It’s already decided,” he said.
In Chechnya, where Russia is waging its second war in a decade, two bombs went off near polling stations early today, but no one was injured, an Emergency Situations Ministry spokesman said.
Putin has not openly campaigned, instead relying on his image as a stable, disciplined leader to appeal to a nation still traumatised by the political and social upheavals that followed the Soviet collapse.
Opinion polls had predicted he would gain more than 75 percent of the vote, with his nearest challenger Glazyev in the low single digits. Putin also faces pro-business liberal Irina Khakamada, Communist Party candidate Nikolai Kharitonov, Oleg Malyshkin, the little-known candidate from flamboyant nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s party and Sergei Mironov, who has said he was running to support the incumbent
More than 500 foreign observers are registered to watch the voting, including representatives of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Some opposition candidates were also doing their own monitoring.