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A woman casts a ballot at a polling station in St. Petersburg. Alamy Stock Photo

Russians cast ballots in presidential election set to hand Putin another term in office

The 71-year-old faces three token rivals from Kremlin-friendly parties, who have refrained from any criticism of him or his invasion of Ukraine.

PEOPLE ACROSS RUSSIA are casting ballots on the second day of an election set to formalise six more years of power for President Vladimir Putin.

It comes against the backdrop of a ruthless crackdown that has stifled independent media and prominent rights groups.

Putin’s fiercest political foe, Alexei Navalny, died in an Arctic prison in February. Other critics are either in jail or in exile.

The 71-year-old faces three token rivals from Kremlin-friendly parties, who have refrained from any criticism of him or his invasion of Ukraine.

Victory will allow Putin to stay in the Kremlin until at least 2030, longer than any other Russian leader since 18th century.

He has cast his war in Ukraine, now in its third year, as an existential battle against the US and other Western powers bent on destroying Russia.

Russia’s wartime economy has proven to be resilient, expanding despite bruising Western sanctions. The Russian defence industry has served as a key growth engine, working around the clock to churn out missiles, tanks and ammunition.

Russia’s opposition movement has urged those unhappy with Putin or the war to show up at the polls at noon on Sunday, the final day of voting, as a form of protest.

The strategy was endorsed by Navalny not long before his death.

russian-president-vladimir-putin-chairs-a-security-council-meeting-at-the-novo-ogaryovo-state-residence-outside-moscow-russia-friday-march-15-2024-mikhail-metzel-sputnik-kremlin-pool-photo-via Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a Security Council meeting. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Voting is taking place at polling stations across Russia’s 11 time zones, in illegally annexed regions of Ukraine, and online.

Ballot ‘will not be free and fair’

The EU and Nato have stated that the presidential election will not be free or fair because the Kremlin has crushed all opposition.

EU spokesperson Peter Stano said: “We know, given the track record of how votes are being prepared and organised in Russia under the current Kremlin administration and regime, how this will look like.”

“It’s very difficult to foresee that this would be a free, fair and democratic election where the Russian people would really have a choice.”

Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg also said the ballot “in Russia will not be free and fair”.

“We know already that opposition politicians are in jail, some are killed, and many are in exile, and actually also some who tried to register as candidates have been denied that right,” he said.

“There is no free and independent press in Russia.”

In the run-up to the vote, Putin boasted about battlefield successes in Ukraine, where the Russian troops have recently made incremental gains relying on their edge in firepower.

Ukraine, meanwhile, has fought back by stepping up attacks on Russia’s border regions and launching drone strikes deep inside the country.

On Friday, Putin described the week’s cross-border shelling and incursions by Ukrainian forces as an attempt by Ukraine to frighten Russians and derail the vote. He vowed that the attacks “won’t be left unpunished”.

Officials said voting was proceeding in an orderly fashion. But despite tight controls, at least half a dozen cases of vandalism at polling stations have been reported, including a firebombing and several people pouring green liquid into ballot boxes.

The latter was an apparent homage to Navalny, who in 2017 was attacked by an assailant splashing green disinfectant in his face.

Western leaders have derided the vote as a travesty of democracy.

On Friday, European Council President Charles Michel mockingly congratulated Putin on “his landslide victory” in an election that was technically still under way.

“No opposition. No freedom. No choice,” he wrote on the social media platform X.

Beyond the lack of options for voters, the possibilities for independent monitoring are very limited.

No significant international observers were present. Only registered, Kremlin-approved candidates – or state-backed advisory bodies – can assign observers to polling stations, decreasing the likelihood of independent watchdogs.

With reporting from Jane Moore

Press Association