Putin on his way to seal 5th term

RUSSIAN President Vladimir Putin  gestures while speaking on a visit to his campaign headquarters after a presidential election in Moscow, Russia, early Monday, March 18, 2024.
RUSSIAN President Vladimir Putin gestures while speaking on a visit to his campaign headquarters after a presidential election in Moscow, Russia, early Monday, March 18, 2024. AP

RUSSIAN President Vladimir Putin basked in a victory early Monday that was never in doubt, as partial election results showed him easily securing a fifth term after facing only token challengers and harshly suppressing opposition voices.

With little margin for protest, Russians crowded outside polling stations at noon Sunday, on the last day of the election, apparently heeding an opposition call to express their displeasure with Putin. Still, the impending landslide underlined that the Russian leader would accept nothing less than full control of the country’s political system as he extends his nearly quarter-century rule for six more years.

Putin hailed the early results as an indication of “trust” and “hope” in him — while critics saw them as another reflection of the preordained nature of the election.

“Of course, we have lots of tasks ahead. But I want to make it clear for everyone: When we were consolidated, no one has ever managed to frighten us, to suppress our will and our self-conscience. They failed in the past and they will fail in the future,” Putin said at a meeting with volunteers after polls closed.

British Foreign Secretary David Cameron wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter: “The polls have closed in Russia, following the illegal holding of elections on Ukrainian territory, a lack of choice for voters and no independent OSCE monitoring. This is not what free and fair elections look like.”

Any public criticism of Putin or his war in Ukraine has been stifled. Independent media have been crippled. His fiercest political foe, Alexei Navalny, died in an Arctic prison last month, and other critics are either in jail or in exile.

Beyond the fact that voters had virtually no choice, independent monitoring of the election was extremely limited. According to Russia’s Central Election Commission, Putin had some 87 percent of the vote with about 90 percent of precincts counted.

In that tightly controlled environment, Navalny’s associates urged those unhappy with Putin or the war in Ukraine to go to the polls at noon on Sunday — and lines outside a number of polling stations both inside Russia and at its embassies around the world appeared to swell at that time.

Navalny’s widow

Among those heeding the call was Yulia Navalnaya, Navalny’s widow, who joined a long line in Berlin as some in the crowd applauded and chanted her name.

She spent more than five hours in the line and told reporters after casting her vote that she wrote her late husband’s name on the ballot.

Asked whether she had a message for Putin, Navalnaya replied: “Please stop asking for messages from me or from somebody for Mr. Putin. There could be no negotiations and nothing with Mr. Putin, because he’s a killer, he’s a gangster.”

But Putin brushed off the effectiveness of the apparent protest.

“There were calls to come vote at noon. And this was supposed to be a manifestation of opposition. Well, if there were calls to come vote, then ... I praise this,” he said at a news conference after polls closed.

Addressing Navalny’s death

Unusually, Putin referenced Navalny by name for the first time in years at the news conference. And he said he was informed of an idea to release the opposition leader from prison, days before his death. Putin said that he agreed to the idea, on condition that Navalny didn’t return to Russia.

Some Russians waiting to vote in Moscow and St. Petersburg told The Associated Press that they were taking part in the protest, but it wasn’t possible to confirm whether all of those in line were doing so.

One woman in Moscow, who said her name was Yulia, told the AP that she was voting for the first time.

“Even if my vote doesn’t change anything, my conscience will be clear ... for the future that I want to see for our country,” she said. Like others, she didn’t give her full name because of security concerns.

Voters for Putin

Some people told the AP that they were happy to vote for Putin — unsurprising in a country where independent media have been hobbled, state TV airs a drumbeat of praise for the Russian leader and voicing any other opinion is risky.

Dmitry Sergienko, who cast his ballot in Moscow, said, “I am happy with everything and want everything to continue as it is now.”

Voting took place over three days at polling stations across the vast country, in illegally annexed regions of Ukraine and online. As people voted Sunday, Russian authorities said Ukraine launched a massive new wave of attacks on Russia, killing two people — underscoring the challenges facing the Kremlin. / AP

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