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Putin extends rule in state-managed election victory

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(LONDON) — President Vladimir Putin was handed a fifth term in Russia’s heavily stage-managed presidential election on Sunday in a vote where no real competition was permitted and with virtually all leading opposition figures jailed, in exile or dead.

The election, held over three days, gave Putin over 87% of the vote, extending his already 24-year rule until at least 2030 – a stratospheric result that recalled the illusionary elections of the Soviet Union or those of other dictatorships, such as North Korea or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

It was the highest result ever for Putin and underlined the extent that dissent is no longer acceptable to the Kremlin, amid Russia’s rapid turn deeper into dictatorship since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago. Election officials also claimed the turnout was 77%, the highest in modern Russian history.

Putin on Monday evening led a victory rally in Red Square timed to coincide with the tenth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. A crowd of several thousand cheered Putin as he walked on stage, waving Russian flags and chanting “Russia.” Putin congratulated them on the annexation and expressed satisfaction that Donbas and other areas of southeastern Ukraine were also now under Russian control.

“Hail Russia!” Putin shouted to the crowd.

Many who were present at similar previous rallies have described being bussed in and pressured by their state employers to attend. Parts of central Moscow were choked with lines of buses on Monday ahead of the rally, according to ABC reporters there.

Western countries denounced the election as neither free nor fair, with the European Union saying it had violated the basic rights of Russians.

“The result was clearly set beforehand,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s deputy spokeswoman, Christiane Hoffmann, reportedly told journalists in Berlin. “Russia is a dictatorship and is ruled by Putin in an authoritarian way.”

Similarly, a White House National Security Council spokesperson said “the elections are obviously not free nor fair, given how Mr. Putin has imprisoned political opponents and prevented others from running against him.”

However, the leaders of several key non-Western countries and Russian allies, including India and China, quickly congratulated Putin.

The three candidates permitted to run against Putin, each of whom received less than 5% of the vote, were vetted by the Kremlin. Anti-war candidates were blocked from the ballot and the election was held amid a worsening crackdown that has seen even minor public expressions of dissent punished with fines and prison sentences.

Despite the Kremlin’s orchestrated efforts to present the appearance of near-total support for Putin, thousands of Russians appeared to heed a call from the late opposition leader Alexey Navalny to demonstrate around the elections. Navalny before his death in prison last month urged people to gather at the same time outside polling stations at midday on Sunday.

The protest action, called “High Noon Against Putin,” was intended to show that significant numbers of Russians still oppose Putin, regardless of the official result. People were told to vote for any candidate other than Putin, or to spoil their ballots.

Thousands of people did come out at noon, forming long lines in cities across Russia, as well as at embassies in foreign capitals where overseas voting was held.

Some of the longest lines formed in capitals where large numbers of Russians have emigrated since the 2022 invasion of Ukraine. In London, a line stretched roughly a mile from the Russian embassy, with some people holding placards condemning Putin and the war, and blasting protest songs at the embassy building.

In Berlin, Navalny’s widow, Yulia Navalnaya, joined the line outside the embassy, waiting approximately six hours to vote, meeting with and embracing supporters there. Afterward, she told reporters she had written her husband’s name on her ballot.

In Russia, authorities had warned people they could face arrest for taking part in the demonstrations. Russia’s government on Monday dismissed them, claiming implausibly that the unusually long lines were due to people waiting to vote for Putin. Appearing at a press conference on Sunday night after declaring victory, Putin himself appeared to troll the protestors, praising the opposition for telling people to vote.

“Well done,” Putin said. “But as far as I understand it didn’t have any effect.”

Golos, an independent Russian NGO that for years has sought to monitor elections and that has been banned for its efforts, denounced the election as an “imitation,” saying every basic element of a free vote had been violated.

“We have never seen a presidential campaign that so much didn’t correspondent to constitutional standards,” the group said in a statement. “In essence the basic articles of Russia’s constitution guaranteeing political rights and freedoms were not operating.”

Authorities made it impossible to monitor voting, Golos wrote, and also had full control over ballot counting. Even to run again, Putin had changed Russia’s constitution in 2020 to circumvent a two-term limit, it noted.

Golos’ chairman, Grigory Melkonyants, remains in jail in Russia after being arrested last August for allegedly associating with what the government calls an “undesirable” organization.

The head of Russia’s elections commission, Ella Pamfilova, claimed Sunday there had been virtually no irregularities in Sunday’s polling and that none of the total results from 90,000 polling stations had been disqualified, which she called “unprecedented.”

Voting was also held in occupied areas of Ukraine, in violation of international law, with videos showing voting taking place in the presence of armed Russian troops.

Putin has hailed the election as demonstrating a clear mandate for his war in Ukraine. In his victory speech on Sunday, he said that he did not exclude that Russia would need to create a “sanitary cordon” on Ukrainian territory, perhaps even including the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, that borders Russia.

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