MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin basked in a landslide re-election victory on Monday, extending his rule over the world’s largest country for another six years at a time when his ties with the West are on a hostile trajectory.
Putin’s victory will take his political dominance of Russia to nearly a quarter of a century until 2024, the longest rule since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, by which time Putin will be 71. He has promised to use his new term to beef up Russia’s defences against the West and to raise living standards.
In an outcome that was never in doubt, the Central Election Commission, with nearly 100 percent of the votes counted, announced that Putin, who has run Russia as president or prime minister since 1999, had won 76.66 percent of the vote.
In a late night victory speech near Red Square, Putin told a cheering crowd he interpreted the win as a vote of confidence in what he had achieved in the last few years in tough conditions.
“It’s very important to maintain this unity,” said Putin, before leading the crowd in repeated chants of “Russia!” He told a meeting of supporters afterwards that difficult times were ahead, but that Russia had a chance to make “a breakthrough.”
Backed by state TV, the ruling party, and credited with an approval rating around 80 percent, he faced no credible threat from field of seven challengers.
His nearest rival, Communist Party candidate Pavel Grudinin, won 11.8 percent, according to near final results, while nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky got 5.6 percent. His most vocal opponent, anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, was barred from running.
Critics alleged that officials had compelled people to come to the polls to ensure that boredom at the one-sided contest did not lead to a low turnout.
Near final figures put voter turnout at 67.47 percent, just shy of the 70 percent the presidential administration was reported to have been aiming for by Russian media before the vote.
Russia’s Central Election Commission said on Monday morning it had not registered any serious complaints about violations, and there were half as many irregularities as reported in the last election in 2012.
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,” Igor Morozov, a member of the upper house of parliament, said on state television.
Valentina Matviyenko, speaker of the upper house, 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.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping was among the first to offer his congratulations to Putin, saying in a Chinese Foreign Ministry statement he believed Russia would “definitely continue to create new glories for national development.”
Opposition leader Navalny is expected to call for anti-Putin protests demanding a re-run of an election he says was neither free nor fair and international observers were due to give their verdict on how clean the election was later on Monday.