Russian voters headed to the polls on Sunday in a presidential election that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is widely expected to win. The election comes after a series of large anti-Putin protests in recent months.
Russians went to the polls on Sunday in a presidential election that is expected to hand Prime Minister Vladimir Putin a third term as head of state, despite opposition from a protest movement that claims the election is unfairly skewed in the ex-KGB agent's favor.
The marathon election opened in Russia's far east and is scheduled to end Sunday evening in the western enclave of Kaliningrad, located between Lithuania and Poland, after spanning nine time zones and running 21 hours. Around 110 million voters are eligible to cast their ballots in 96,000 polling stations.
The last major opinion polls before the election showed that Putin was likely to win 56-66 percent of the vote, which means he would likely avoid a runoff election against one of the four opposition candidates. Putin previously served as president from 2000-2008, stepping aside due to term limits. His protégé Dmitry Medvedev then assumed the presidency while he became prime minister.
Among the opposition candidates, Gennady Zyuganov of the Communist Party is currently polling in second place with 15 percent of the vote. The billionaire industrial tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov and Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the Liberal Democratic Party are expected to battle for third while Sergei Mironov of the Fair Russia party is pegged to come in fourth.
Around 450,000 soldiers and police have been deployed to provide security during the election, with polling stations equipped with metal detectors to prevent possible terrorist attacks.
"We are going to respond to provocations with the full force allowed by law," Moscow police chief Vladimir Kolokoltsev said.
Russia's electoral commission on Saturday said that it had tested web cameras that will broadcast the vote live. Around 600,000 people had registered online to watch the vote, according to Telecommunications Minister Igor Shchegolev. Putin says the cameras are aimed at preventing vote rigging.
The legitimacy of the ballot has been challenged by a protest movement that is calling for more electoral transparency. Russians began taking to the streets in December over allegations of electoral fraud during the parliamentary elections, which Putin's United Russia party won with a weakened mandate. The protests attracted large crowds, at times gathering upwards of 50,000 people in Moscow.
In a pre-poll statement, the election monitoring group Golos (Voice or Vote) said that the only difference between the parliamentary and the presidential election was that "the methods of pressure on voters are more carefully organized, with a greater fear of publicity and public scandals."
Alexei Navalny, a blogger and lawyer who is influential among the protest movement, said that many Russians did not view the vote as free and transparent.
"People in Russia are not going to recognize Putin's victory in the first round," Navalny said.
Putin has been dismissive of the protesters, alleging that they are supported by the US and EU. During his final address to Russians before the polls, the prime minister said that Russia "must work smoothly, constructively, without shocks or revolutions."
slk/ai (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)