MOSCOW—Russians went to the polls in a presidential election Sunday that is all but certain to grant President
a further six years in office, but that has been condemned as undemocratic in a country where the Kremlin has tightened its grip on civil society.
Mr. Putin’s dominance over Russia’s political scene after two decades in power left little doubt over the outcome of the contest, in which Mr. Putin faces a handful of little-known candidates.
Under Mr. Putin, the Kremlin has consolidated its control over the media and sidelined political opponents, including opposition activist Alexei Navalny, who in recent years has brought tens of thousands to the streets to protest high-level corruption. Mr. Navalny was barred from running because of a criminal conviction that he calls politically motivated. He has called on his supporters to boycott the election.
At the same time, Mr. Putin’s approval rating, which topped 80% before the vote, has surged along with the huge rise in living standards many Russians have enjoyed in the past 20 years.
A resounding victory with around 70% of the vote, as polls forecast, would also demonstrate Russian public support for Mr. Putin’s assertive foreign policy, which has challenged the West even as Russia’s economic problems have mounted in recent years.
Indeed, if re-elected, Mr. Putin will face a raft of challenges, ranging from rebooting a stagnant economy to managing foreign entanglements in Syria and Ukraine.
And the 65-year-old Russian leader will have to deal with a problem that eventually confronts all longtime leaders: What to do when he reaches the end of what, according to the constitution, should be his last term in power.
The vote follows a lackluster campaign in which Mr. Putin ignored his opponents, instead crisscrossing Russia to make visits to factories, concerts and forums aimed at showcasing his achievements and broad support.
During those appearances, Mr. Putin pledged to improve people’s living standards and health, and boasted of Russia’s expanded nuclear arsenal, modernized armed forces and return to the world stage.
Polls close at 9 p.m. Moscow time (2 p.m. ET). Soon after, the state-run pollster will release the first exit polls. Full results are expected on Monday.
At a polling station in northern Moscow where authorities offered cheap sausages, vegetables and tea to voters, 65-year-old Maria Morozova said she had voted for Mr. Putin. “It’s a tense situation in the world, and Putin with his foreign policy is the kind of strong leader we need right now,” she said.
Still, Ms. Morozova, a retiree who used to work for a telecommunications company, said she isn’t happy with the government’s domestic policies. She relies on financial support from her daughter to supplement her pension of the equivalent of around $300, which she says isn’t enough to get by in Moscow.
With little doubt over the outcome of the election, the Kremlin has focused its efforts on bolstering the turnout, seeing a high participation rate as a vote of confidence in Mr. Putin’s more aggressive confrontation with the West and an increase in military spending that has siphoned rubles out of social programs Russians depend on. Some Local authorities offered prizes such as iPhones to encourage people to cast ballots, and scheduled referendums on Local issues for Sunday to encourage voters to turn up.
Sergei Sysoyev, a 47-year-old election observer, said turnout appeared higher than usual. “Russia has no experience with changing leaders. People literally regard elections as a procedure to re-elect the person already in power,” he said.
Mr. Putin has enjoyed soaring approval ratings since coming to power in 2000. In the early years of his tenure, strong oil prices allowed him to boost social spending and reassert Moscow’s influence abroad.
In recent years, the government has won plaudits at home for a more muscular confrontation with the West—including military interventions in Ukraine and Syria and alleged interference in the U.S. presidential election. State broadcasters have presented Mr. Putin’s foreign forays as resistance against Western expansionism aimed at weakening Russia.
As a result, tensions between Russia and the West have approached those of the Cold War era. Last week, the U.K. accused Moscow of involvement in the poisoning of a former Russian spy who was living in Britain. On Friday, U.K. Foreign Minister
specifically named Mr. Putin as likely having given the order for the poisoning.
But at home, Mr. Putin’s bargain of limited political freedoms in return for rising living standards has come under threat in recent years, as Russia’s economy fell into recession, hurt by sanctions over its aggression in Ukraine as well as weak prices for oil, Russia’s main export. The economy returned to growth last year, but officials and economists warn that without major overhauls to improve the Business climate, Russia could face years of weakness.
“With a Putin win—and we don’t see any other real scenario—we’re very unlikely to see any meaningful reforms that will really change the economic picture,” said Neil Shearing, chief emerging economist at Capital Economics, a London-based research firm.
Dmitry Lennikov, a 33-year-old butcher, said he voted for
the Communist Party candidate, as he’d had enough of Mr. Putin because of the poor economic situation.
“I don’t have any expectations or hopes for Putin,” he said. “There needs to be changes, as everyone’s tired of this stagnation.”
In the presidential campaign, Mr. Putin faced minor figures with little past electoral success or little notoriety.
As the president toured the country, his opponents squabbled on televised debates. Mr. Grudinin, a farming tycoon, will likely come a distant second to Mr. Putin, but could struggle to score more than a single-figure percentage of the vote, polls show.
“There’s no worthy alternative,” said Nina Korobova, a 56-year-old retiree who cast her vote for Mr. Putin in northeast Moscow. “If there were, we could consider it.”
Source : WSJ