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By Vladimir Soldatkin and Gleb Stolyarov
KEMEROVO, Russia (Reuters)

Russian President Vladimir Putin won a landslide re-election victory on Sunday, 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 extend his total time in office to nearly a quarter of a century, until 2024, by which time he will be 71. Only Soviet dictator Josef Stalin ruled for longer. Putin has promised to use his new term to beef up Russia’s defences against the West and to raise living standards.

 

Head of the Chechen Republic Kadyrov applauds after visiting a polling station during the presidential election in Tsentoroy
Head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov applauds after visiting a polling station during the presidential election in the settlement of Tsentoroy, Russia March 18, 2018. REUTERS/Said Tsarnayev

 

In a widely expected outcome, an exit poll by pollster VTsIOM showed Putin, who has dominated the political landscape for the last 18 years, had won 73.9 percent of the vote. The Central Election Commission, speaking after almost a third of the votes had been counted, put Putin on 73 percent.

 

People visit a polling station during the presidential election in Barnaul
People visit a polling station to cast their votes during the presidential election in the city of Barnaul, Russia March 18, 2018. REUTERS/Andrei Kasprishin

 

Backed by state TV, the ruling party, and credited with an approval rating around 80 percent, his victory was never in doubt. His nearest challenger, Communist Party candidate Pavel Grudinin, got just over 11 percent, according to exit polls, while nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky got around 6 percent.

 

Presidential candidate Sobchak visits a polling station during the presidential election in Moscow
Presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak walks out of a voting booth at a polling station during the presidential election in Moscow, Russia March 18, 2018. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

 

None of the seven candidates who ran against him posed a threat, and opposition leader Alexei Navalny was barred from running. Critics alleged that officials had compelled people to come to the polls to ensure that voter boredom at the one-sided contest did not lead to a low turnout.

 

A voter casts her ballot inside a building of the Kazansky railway terminal during the presidential election in Moscow
An employee of Russian Railways company casts her ballot inside a building of the Kazansky railway terminal during the presidential election in Moscow, Russia March 18, 2018. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

 

Russia’s Central Election Commission recognised that there were some irregularities, but was likely to dismiss wider criticism and declare the overall result legitimate.

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,” Senator Igor Morozov said on state television.

 

People take selfie pictures as they visit a polling station during the presidential election in Moscow
People take selfie pictures as they visit a polling station during the presidential election in Moscow, Russia March 18, 2018. REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva

 

Valentina Matviyenko, a close Putin ally and speaker of the upper house of parliament, 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. No other country in the world has such open and transparent elections.”

 

 

The immediate question is if and when opponents like Navalny organise protests, citing fraud, and how large and sustained those protests will be. A senior opposition politician has warned they could descend into street clashes if police crack down too hard on demonstrators.

The longer-term question is whether Putin will soften his anti-Western rhetoric now the election is won.

 

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