Russians voted on Sunday in presidential polls likely to return strongman Vladimir Putin to the Kremlin for a record third term amid a wave of protests unseen for decades.
Voters in the world’s largest country, spread across nine time zones, will cast their ballots in a marathon election stretched over 21 hours in which victory for 59-year-old ex-KGB spy Putin appears inevitable.
“I know Putin for practical actions, not words,” pensioner Zinaida Bykova told AFP in the Pacific port of Vladivostok after voting for the man who has dominated Russian politics for more than a decade.
“Every vote is important when you live in a democratic country,” another voter, student Anna Antipenko, told AFP.
Despite the recent demonstrations, state pollsters have forecaste a first-round win for Putin with 60 percent of the vote, leaving his Communist rival Gennady Zyuganov trailing in second place with 15 percent.
The tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov and the flamboyant populist Vladimir Zhirinovsky are expected to battle for third place while the former upper house speaker Sergei Mironov is tipped to finish last, but there are no candidates representing the fledgling protest movement.
The election campaign saw a strong undercurrent of anti-Western sentiment with pro-Kremlin television denouncing opposition figures as agents of the West and portraying Russia as a country under siege.
Turnout in the far eastern region of Chukotka, where voting started at 2000 GMT, stood at 48 percent four hours afer the polls opened.
Reports of a high early-morning turnout in the region could indicate a potentially similar pattern nationwide, said the head of Russia’s central election commission, Vladimir Churov.
“If there is such a turnout in Chukotka at 8am, then we can expect the most interesting turnout figures,” Churov said, news agency RIA Novosti reported.
Putin’s expected landslide victory may be tainted by levels of political uncertainty unknown during the current prime minister’s first two terms as president between 2000 and 2008.
Street protests that erupted in response to alleged fraud during December’s parliamentary ballot have swelled into a broader opposition movement whose use of online networks echoes the Arab Spring revolts.
The authorities have installed web cameras in 90,000 polling stations for the first time in an attempt to demonstrate transparency and combat allegations of cheating.
Independent election monitors who are publicising alleged violations via the Internet during the polls have suggested that the authorities have been keen to minimise accusations of fraud during pre-election campaigning because of the protests sparked by the parliamentary polls.
The only difference during the presidential campaign was that “the methods of pressure on voters are more carefully organised, with a greater fear of publicity and public scandals”, observer group Golos (Voice or Vote) said in a pre-poll statement.
Putin’s four challengers have already admitted they only have the possibility of finishing second and possibly joining a runoff should he fail to gain the 50 percent of the vote required for outright victory.
But metals magnate Prokhorov appeared optimistic, posing for photographs with voters as he cast his ballot in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk.
“I’m choosing a new Russia. Everything is just beginning,” he said, according to RIA Novosti.
The authorities cite opinion polls suggesting that only a minority of Russians back the anti-Putin cause.
But the country faces post-election protests on Monday, and police in Moscow have drafted in an extra 6,300 officers to ensure that demonstrators do not spill over into Red Square.
“We are going to respond to provocations with the full force allowed by law,” warned Moscow police chief Vladimir Kolokoltsev.
The victor will win a six-year term in office, replacing Putin ally Dmitry Medvedev.
Voting is due to end in the western exclave of Kaliningrad at 1700 GMT.