Russian leader Vladimir Putin was set Sunday to return to the Kremlin after crushing his opponents in a presidential election which the opposition said was marred by serial violations.
Putin would win the polls in the first round with a score approaching 60 percent of the vote followed by his main rival the Communist Gennady Zyuganov and tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov in third, exit polls and initial results showed.
If confirmed, the results mean that Putin will reclaim the Kremlin post he occupied for two terms from 2000-2008 after his four-year stint as prime minister under the presidency of his protege Dmitry Medvedev.
But Putin is facing a major new challenge to his rule that comes not from the candidates who stood against him but from a protest movement that has staged mass rallies in the last three months against his rule.
Early results based on 14.5 percent of Russia’s polling stations said he had won 61.8 percent of the vote, the central election commission said.
The early results — gathered mainly from the Far East and Siberia where polls closed several hours ago — showed Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov trailing in second with 17.8 percent.
The firebrand nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky was scoring 8.0 percent, tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov 7.6 percent, while the left-leaning former upper house speaker Sergei Mironov was fifth with 3.7 percent, the early results showed.
Putin would win 58.3 percent of the vote, an exit poll survey by the state-run VTsIOM polling institute projected with Zyuganov second with 17.7 percent, while Prokhorov was to finish third with 9.2 percent.
“This first-round victory was obvious two or three months ago. The question was the figure. Early results of 61 percent are a pleasant surprise. We were expecting 58 percent,” said Putin’s campaign chief Stanislav Govorukhin.
“There will be no second round.”
But opposition parties said there were clear signs of foul play in the election, including multiple voting, despite the installation on Putin’s orders of webcams to ensure transparency.
The opposition raised concerns about so called “carousel” voting where people cast multiple ballots at different polling stations using absentee voting documents.
“These elections cannot be considered legitimate in any way,” said Vladimir Ryzhkov, one of the leaders of the protest movement, told state television after the results were announced.
Zyuganov also blasted the elections as “crooked and absolutely unfair”, in comments on state television.
An AFP correspondent saw a fleet of 100 buses had arrived in the capital carrying workers from outlying regions to vote in Moscow, an action organised by the Nashi (Ours) pro-Kremlin youth group but which the opposition said was aimed at multiple voting.
In a tense contest of rival protests, Nashi will try and seize the initiative with a rock concert-style mass rally on Manezh Square outside the Kremlin walls on Sunday night that is expected to gather 20,000 people.
But this will be followed on Monday night by an opposition demonstration of at least 30,000 on the central Pushkin Square for “Russia without Putin”.
That rally has been sanctioned by the authorities but police — who have brought in 6,300 extra officers from across Russia — have warned they will break up any unauthorised gatherings.
Putin served two terms as president from 2000-2008 and then became prime minister under his protege Dmitry Medvedev.
But under a change to the constitution, the next presidential mandate will last six years and analysts have warned that Putin risks facing serious unrest in that period if he does not respond to Russia’s changing society.