MOSCOW (AFP) – Vladimir Putin on Monday was preparing to reoccupy the Kremlin after a crushing presidential election victory but Russian and foreign observers sounded alarm over the extent of violations in the polls.
Amid a growing controversy over the ballot’s fairness, tens of thousands of people were set to rally in Moscow for a “Russia without Putin” in a protest sanctioned by the authorities but which will take place amid heavy security.
Putin secured almost 64 percent of the vote in Sunday’s election, winning back the Russian presidency which he held for two terms from 2000-2008 before his four-year stint as prime minister.
His nearest rival, the Communist Party boss Gennady Zyuganov, trailed well behind in the landslide victory and only tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov sprung a surprise by coming third despite building his political base from scratch.
But concerns of election-rigging shadowed the polls just as they had done after parliamentary elections on December 4, when claims of fraud sparked the first mass protests against Putin in over a decade in power.
“The Russian elections were neither free nor fair and were not in line with the demands of Russian law and international electoral standards,” Russia’s Golos vote monitor said in a statement.
International observers led by the OSCE said while there had been progress in transparency, the campaign had been massively tilted in favour of Putin and was followed by major irregularities in the vote count.
“Conditions (for the campaign) were clearly skewed in favour of… Vladimir Putin” while the vote count was “assessed negatively in almost one-third of polling stations observed due to procedural irregularities,” they said.
Heidi Tagliavini, the head of the Election Observation Mission of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), called for an investigation into “all allegations” of electoral violations.
“There remained widespread mistrust in the integrity of the election process,” the diplomat said in a statement.
The opposition had earlier raised concerns about so called “carousel” voting where people cast multiple ballots at different polling stations using absentee voting documents.
Putin, who is set to be inaugurated in May, won 63.75 percent of the vote, well ahead of Zyuganov who won 17.19 percent, the election commission said based on a count from 99.3 percent of polling stations.
Third place went to Prokhorov with 7.82 percent. Maverick ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky came fourth with 6.23 percent while former upper house speaker Sergei Mironov trailed in fifth place with 3.85 percent. Turnout was 65.3 percent.
“Vladimir Putin won the presidential elections by a wide margin but the task of increasing his legitimacy has yet to be solved,” said the Vedomosti business daily.
Opposition leaders are expecting tens of thousands of people to rally in Pushkin Square later Monday that activists hope will be followed by a succession of similar actions to up the pressure against Putin.
In an unexpected move ahead of the protest, the Kremlin said outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev ordered a review of the conviction of tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose jailing the opposition sees as politically motivated.
Putin, whose new presidential mandate is for six years, will return to the Kremlin at a time of rapid social change in a Russia that is seeing an increasingly critical middle class and an explosion in Internet use.
But these concerns did not spoil his night as he appeared before over 100,000 supporters just outside the Kremlin and appeared to wipe tears from his eyes, although he later claimed this was caused by the wind.
“I promised you we would win, we won. Glory to Russia!” Putin said.
Russia’s closest allies were already congratulating Putin, with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez vowing to deepen “strategic” ties and Chinese President Hu Jintao sending a message of congratulations.
Germany wants to work with Putin constructively and to extend a strategic partnership, said Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.