Russian President Vladimir Putin has won re-election in a landslide victory, extending his rule over the world’s largest country for another six years at a time when the ties with the West are on a hostile trajectory.
In a widely expected outcome, the Central Election Commission said Mr Putin had won 75.9 per cent of votes with more than 70 per cent counted.
An exit poll by VTsIOM showed Mr Putin, who has dominated the political landscape for the last 18 years, had won 73.9 per cent of the vote.
Mr Putin thanked voters for their support at a victory rally and said Russia had a great future ahead of it provided its people stayed united.
Speaking from a stage just off Moscow’s Red Square in front of a cheering audience, the President said the election result was a recognition of what had been achieved in the past few years, despite difficult conditions.
“I see in this trust and hope, the hope of our people that we will work with the same intensity, with the same sense of responsibility and with even greater results,” Mr Putin said.
“Thank you for the fact that we have such a powerful, millions-strong team. Success awaits us.”
Before leaving the stage to applause, he led the crowd in a chant of “Russia, Russia!”
Mr Putin’s victory will extend his total time in office to nearly a quarter of a century, until 2024, by which time he will be 71.
Only Soviet dictator Josef Stalin ruled for longer.
Mr Putin has promised to use his new term to beef up Russia’s defences against the West and to raise living standards.
Backed by state TV, the ruling party, and credited with an approval rating around 80 per cent, his victory was never in doubt.
Allegations staff ordered to show evidence of vote
His nearest challenger, Communist Party candidate Pavel Grudinin, got just over 11 per cent, according to exit polls, while nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky got about 6 per cent.
None of the seven candidates who ran against him posed a threat, and opposition leader Alexei Navalny was barred from running.
The only real headache for Mr Putin’s campaign was the possibility many voters, including his supporters, would not bother to come to the polls because they felt the outcome was already a foregone conclusion.
By 7:00pm Moscow time, authorities said turnout had hit nearly 60 per cent.
Mr Putin’s opponents alleged employers with close ties to the state were ordering staff to go and vote so that a low turnout would not tarnish the win, and send back evidence.
Reporters witnessed multiple people in different locations voting in groups, and then taking photos of themselves in front of the ballot boxes on their phones.
Some arrived at polling stations on board privately-hired buses.
In polling station 1515 in Zelenodolsk, 800 kilometres east of Moscow, many people photographed themselves voting.
Asked why, one of the group, a young woman, said: “What do you mean why? It’s a photographic report for our bosses.”
At polling station number 216 in Ust-Djeguta, Marina Kostina was supervising two teenage girls who were photographing voters.
Ms Kostina said: “Her work asked her to report back.”
A low turnout would diminish Mr Putin’s authority within the ruling elite, which is founded in large part on his ability to mobilise the public behind him.
Russia’s Central Election Commission recognised that there were some irregularities, but was likely to dismiss wider criticism and declare the overall result legitimate.
‘World’s most open and transparent elections’: Putin ally
Putin loyalists said the result was a vindication of his tough stance towards the West.
“I think that in the United States and Britain they’ve understood they cannot influence our elections,” Senator Igor Morozov said on state television.
Valentina Matviyenko, a close Putin ally and speaker of the upper house of Parliament, hailed the victory as a moral one over the West.
“Our elections have proved once again … that it’s not possible to manipulate our people,” she said.
“People came together. No other country in the world has such open and transparent elections.”
The immediate questions were whether opponents like Mr Navalny would organise protests, citing fraud, and how large and sustained they would be.
A senior opposition politician has warned they could descend into street clashes if police crack down too hard on demonstrators.
The longer-term question is whether Mr Putin will soften his anti-Western rhetoric now the election is won.