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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Early Returns Give Putin 70 Percent

APPresident Vladimir Putin voting on Sunday at Polling Station No. 2039, in a building of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
President Vladimir Putin was hurtling toward a second term Sunday with preliminary results and an exit poll giving him a strong new mandate of nearly 70 percent of the vote in an election widely criticized for heavy Kremlin quashing of all opposition.

A sweeping Kremlin-backed campaign to get the vote out dealt with the only uncertainty of the election: voter turnout, which was well over the 50 percent hurdle required to make the election stand.

A strong second-place showing by little-known Communist candidate Nikolai Kharitonov, who according to preliminary results garnered nearly 15 percent, provided the one surprise of a race so dominated by one runner that it was more of a plebiscite for Putin's rule than a voters' choice between candidates.

As of 11 p.m., preliminary results with 27.4 percent of the vote counted gave Putin 68.8 percent, Kharitonov 14.7 percent, nationalist Sergei Glazyev 4.3 percent, liberal Irina Khakamada 4.2 percent, Oleg Malyshkin of the Liberal Democratic Party 2.6 percent and Putin stooge Sergei Mironov less than 1 percent. Protest votes against all racked up 3.7 percent.

An exit poll by the non-governmental Public Opinion Foundation, which surveyed votes by 120,000 people at 1,200 polling stations, gave Putin 69 percent.

"The leader is definite," said Central Elections Commission chief Alexander Veshnyakov. "No change is seen. The leader, and obvious leader, is Vladimir Putin."

Putin's efforts to restore Russia's might on the world stage and build on the stability and economic growth he fostered in his first term have earned him the genuine liking and trust of an electorate still weary from the chaotic collapse of the 1990s. But opposition candidates, lashing out at the Kremlin's heavy-handed moves to leave nothing to chance by depriving them of airtime, complained Sunday of pervasive electoral violations.

Even U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell weighed in. "Since President Putin has had such an overwhelming edge in this election, and, frankly, is liked by the Russian people, and the Russian people will return him to office easily, then it's not entirely clear to me why they go out of their way to keep opposition candidates from fully participating in the electoral process," Powell said in an interview on "Fox News Sunday." "It's not good, but I don't think it signals the total demise of democracy in Russia. They've just got to do a better job of it."

Putin's strong showing should give him a new mandate to push forward with any reform he chooses. "Putin now has got the government absolutely behind him and this plebiscite today further strengthens his position and the control that he has," said Roland Nash, chief strategist at Renaissance Capital. "It is the ultimate confirmation of the political directorship he has over Russia."

Putin has promised to continue liberal reforms, but also seems likely to push for greater state control over strategic sectors of the economy, such as oil. Many observers, however, fear that his tight control over all political processes could lead to stagnation in the economy.

Other analysts warned that with difficult reforms and a potential dip in the oil price ahead, this was the last time Putin would have such a high approval rating. "One should understand that Putin's rating will never be as high again," Igor Bunin, director of the Center for Political Technologies, told Interfax.

Putin's second term should "be a time of serious reforms that dramatically increase the number of those upset" by Putin's presidency, he said.

Kharitonov's relatively strong showing is a sign the Communist Party is still alive and kicking even though its leader Gennady Zyuganov did not run. "The party is confirming it is still alive. If the leadership would change they would get even more of the vote," said Lilia Shevtsova, political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

The Communist Party gained 12 percent of the vote in December's State Duma election. In the 2000 race for the presidency, however, Zyuganov got 29.2 percent to Putin's 52.9 percent.

Back then, the turnout was 68.7 percent.

The final turnout figure in this election was not available Sunday. Ninety minutes before polls closed, it stood at 61.18 percent.

Kharitonov was beaming on Sunday night at his unexpected success. He said he could have gained much more if he had had the same blanket media coverage Putin had enjoyed. Putin's exploits attending strategic war games and running the government were consistently given prime-time news slots.

"Four minutes and 50 seconds of live broadcasts of my meeting with voters. This was all I received during the entire campaign," Kharitonov said proudly as he arrived at Central Elections Commission headquarters late Sunday to watch the vote tally. "I have not been on television from morning till night for four years. What I am gaining now are real votes, real percents."

Khakamada said she was satisfied with the 5 percent showing in preliminary results. "If this stays so, it would be a major victory because a month ago I counted on gaining 1 percent. I would consider it a great happiness if I ended up with 3 percent."

Glazyev, meanwhile, lashed out at the authorities for pushing him out of the race. "The election campaign took place under tough use of administrative resources and dirty technology," he told a press conference. "My access to the media was simply blocked."

Sunday morning, however, Putin thanked his opponents for taking part. "These people have honored me by running against me. They are all very worthy people," he said after casting his ballot.

But as he cast his vote, even Putin still seemed jittery that the lack of competition for the race could undermine the process as whole and keep voters away.

"The voters should understand the extent of their responsibility when they are making their vote," he said in televised remarks. "Today we are suffering from several problems that we have inherited from earlier times, when the people and the authorities were always separated from each other. The feeling of participation should come with the coming years."

Putin's sudden decision to reshuffle the government with little more than two weeks left before the vote was seen as an attempt to rekindle interest in political life.

But according to Khakamada, it was also designed to steal the limelight -- and airtime -- from opposition voices. "The main aim of the government's dismissal was to turn attention to the government, so that nobody discussed opposition programs," she said after casting her ballot Sunday.

The new prime minister installed in that reshuffle, Mikhail Fradkov, appeared to be so certain of the outcome Sunday he did not even question whether he would still have a job.

Immediately after placing his vote, he said he had to go straight to work. "We have very serious tasks ahead of us, so every hour is precious."

His predecessor Mikhail Kasyanov, who was kicked out in what many saw as a move to remove one of the last major sources of opposition to Putin, had words of warning for Fradkov. He said economic growth in 2005 was in danger of sinking to 4 percent if the new government does not forward bills on new tax legislation soon. "If the necessary bills are not forwarded by April, then the budget for 2005 is under threat," he said after voting at the same polling station in a Moscow school as Fradkov.

While Fradkov and Kasyanov declined to say whom they had voted for, State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov thumbed his nose at electoral niceties to make his choice clear.

"There should be no doubt about whom I voted for," he said, Interfax reported. "I voted for the person who, over the past four years, has been able to ensure stability in the country, the development of the economy and a policy as clear as this day is," he said in a nod to the brilliant March sunshine that prevailed on Sunday.

It was less clear, however, who the two oligarchs that bore the brunt of Putin's power grab voted for. Yukos founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his partner Platon Lebedev cast their ballots in Matrosskaya Tishina jail, where they are awaiting trial on charges of large-scale fraud and tax evasion in a probe seen as Putin's response to their attempts to encroach on his power.