Russia's presidential election was tainted Sunday by unprecedented pressure on voters to turn out and incidents of suspected ballot box stuffing in a barely democratic exercise that will grant Vladimir Putin another six years of power. His opponents have called the election a farce, but his millions of fans hail the former KGB officer for restoring Russian greatness and defending their nation from a hostile world. Putin is facing seven challengers but the outcome is pre-ordained given his high popularity ratings. The major goal for Russian authorities is producing a big turnout that will hand Putin the legitimacy he craves and a mandate for his fourth term. Sunday's election is expected to further embolden Putin both at home and in world affairs. Putin seemed confident of victory, saying, "The program that I propose for the country is the right one," he said. A look at the vote:
- Russia's Central Election Commission said Sunday it had been the target of a hacking attempt early in the voting day. The group said authorities deterred the denial of service attack but gave few details of how serious it was.
- Given the lack of competition, authorities are struggling with voter apathy—and have put many of Russia's 111 million voters under intense pressure. "If I want to keep working, I vote," said a Moscow city employee.
- Yevgeny Roizman, mayor of Yekaterinburg, told the AP that local officials and state employees have all received orders "from higher up" to make sure turnout is over 60%.
- Observers including opposition leader Alexei Navalny's reps, the Golos monitoring group, and ordinary Russians posted images online of apparent voting violations. Some examples: ballot boxes being stuffed with extra ballots in multiple regions; an election official assaulting an observer; CCTV cameras obscured by flags or nets from watching ballot boxes; discrepancies in ballot numbers; last-minute voter registration changes likely to boost turnout; and a huge pro-Putin board inside a polling station.
- In Moscow, first-time voters were being given free tickets for pop concerts, and health authorities were offering free cancer screenings at polling stations.
- Challenger Ksenia Sobchak, a 36-year-old TV host, urged Putin's critics to "come together" and vote instead of boycotting, as opposition leader Navalny has recommended. Critics think Sobchak has the tacit support of the Kremlin so that the election appears more democratic.
(Putin once scored 107% turnout in one precinct