Russia's current prime minister and presidential candidate Vladimir Putin addresses supporters during a rally in Manezhnaya Square near the Kremlin in central Moscow, March 4 2012.
Vladimir Putin has claimed victory in Russia’s presidential election, putting him on track to rule Russia through 2018.
With only one third of the votes counted in Russia's Presidential election, Vladimir Putin bounded up the steps of a stage in front of the Kremlin and faced a sea of Russian flags and a massive crowd estimated by police at 110,000 people. "We won," he said.
Early returns and two nationwide exit polls give Vladimir Putin a comfortable victory in his quest for a record third term as president.
The VTsIOM poll gave him 58 percent, the FOM poll gave him 59 percent and one-half of ballots cast gave him 64 percent.
Mr. Putin needs more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a second-round runoff against one of his rivals.
The polls and returns indicate that the Communist Party candidate, Gennady Zyuganov, will come in second. Third place will go to Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire standard-bearer of Russia’s newly restive urban middle class.
Zyuganov denounced the election in a stinging 10-minute tirade broadcast nationally. The communist leader called the elections "illegitimate, unfair and not transparent."
Prokhorov also called the elections unfair, saying "I deliberately agreed to play by someone else’s rules."
The website of Golos, an independent watchdog agency, registered more than 3,000 complaints of alleged voting law violations.
Charges included "carousel" voting, which involved busing voters from one polling station to another to cast absentee ballots. Others complained of doctored voting lists. One woman in Siberia complained that she found that her dead family members had cast ballots Sunday.
According to others, pro-Kremlin business leaders installed voting booths in factories, pressuring workers to vote for Mr. Putin.
As polls started to close in European Russia, Grigory Melkonyants, spokesman for Golos, spoke to VOA. He said that if the elections had been clean, Mr. Putin would have had to face a second round. But, he said, the volume of fraud complaints was as high this time as in the parliamentary elections three months ago.
Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, told the Interfax news agency that he doubts the results reflect the true will of Russians. He said the challenge now is to change Russia’s election system to make voting fair, and to restore direct election for governors.
But Stanislav Govorukhin, a Putin campaign director, rebutted these claims. He told reporters, "This was the purest election in Russia’s history."
Accusations of fraud in the parliamentary vote sparked the largest street protests against Mr. Putin in his 12 years in power, from 2000 to 2008 as president and the last four as prime minister.
On Sunday, as polls started to close in western Russia, central Moscow looked more and more like an armed camp. Lines of police officers ringed the Kremlin. Riot police marched in formation. Dozens of gray prison trucks lined the streets.
Alleging a bomb scare, police forced a parallel vote-counting group to vacate their offices and stand on the street.
Pro-Kremlin groups occupied four central Moscow squares. Mikhail Dukhovich, a 30-year-old pro-Putin activist, was setting up for a block party on a square in front of the looming building of the state security services, formerly known as the KGB. "Vladimir Putin is the only candidate, the one and only real candidate who makes real deals, not only speaks about them like other candidates," he said.
As he spoke, city streets filled with hundreds of buses, bringing Russians from outside Moscow to the Putin victory concerts and laser shows.
Monday will be the opposition’s chance to show its strength. A mass protest is scheduled for Pushkin Square, a downtown protest point that is at the crossroads of three subway lines. As election officials announced that Mr. Putin was on the road to victory, the number of people signing up for the protest on a Facebook page jumped more than 7,000.