Russian election: Rivals criticise Putin 'victory'

By Bridget Kendall
Diplomatic correspondent, BBC News Moscow

image captionMr Putin declared victory but the some of the other candidates have been critical

The clear majority of around 60% of the vote for Vladimir Putin, predicted by exit polls almost the moment polls closed, probably came as no surprise to many Russians.

Those who favour of him would say that it reinforced their view that his experience and strongman style always made him the most appropriate candidate for president, and the exit polls merely showed that most Russians agreed with them.

Those opposed to him would say it confirmed their suspicion that this Russian presidential election, like the parliamentary vote in December, was once again not a fair reflection of the country's preferences, but a pre-cooked theatrical display, manipulated to produce the result the Kremlin always wanted.

Even before the polls closed, complaints over the election were being aired widely.

Suspicions of violations in the voting process emerged from multiple sources as the election day progressed.

'Merry-go-round voting'

Opposition activists and independent observers said in particular they were concerned about reports of so called "carousel" or merry-go-round voting, where groups of voters turned up to vote more than once at different polling stations.

Russian officials denied the allegations, claiming that groups of voters were simply being bussed to polls from factory plants in batches because they were workers coming off shift.

Their parallel complaint was that opposition activists were deliberately flagging up rumours and "false information" in an attempt ahead of time to undermine the election result.

It will take time to confirm whether or not the suspicions of violations hold water. And opposition activists had always maintained that the most likely moment for vote rigging might come after the polls closed, when votes were counted behind closed doors.

If that is true, then the full picture of alleged election fraud may be some way off yet.

image captionThe outgoing president strode out with Mr Putin to accept the crowd's congratulations

Third age of 'Putinism'

In the meantime, a pro-Putin election rally in front of the Kremlin has already sent out a message that the contest is over and the third age of "Putinism" - his return to the presidency for a third term - is now beyond dispute.

It is curious, for a man like Mr Putin who has always seemed a stickler for protocol, that the victory has been declared so early, even before the votes were counted.

Young demonstrators at the rally interviewed on nationwide TV expressed their joy at their "ideal" candidate having won, amidst a sea of Russian flags, in an atmosphere of carefully crafted jubilation.

Before long, as they did four years ago, the pair of them, outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev and in coming replacement Vladimir Putin, strode out onto the prepared platform to accept the crowd's congratulations.

Mr Putin, usually so inscrutable, looked overcome by emotion.

"It was a very important test for all of us, of political maturity," he said, "and we proved that no-one and nothing can hold us back."

Claiming there had been attempts by some to "usurp power", he declared that the Russian people had made sure this was not be allowed.

"We said we'd win, and we won," he shouted at the crowd, though whether the moisture on his cheeks was from tears of relief and satisfaction, or the result of the freezing cold of a Moscow March night was not entirely obvious.

'Dishonest election'

But it may not be entirely over. Quite apart from allegations of violations, what is already significant is the reaction of other presidential candidates.

In previous elections, those who stood against the Kremlin candidate have tended to give way graciously, as though resigned to the fact that they themselves were never real contenders.

But this time some of the candidates were swift to come out with public statements to the media that were strikingly critical.

What is more, this blatant antagonism about Mr Putin and the election as a whole was carried live and broadcast nationwide on Russian state television's rolling election programme.

Billionaire businessman Mikhail Prokhorov - who only six months ago was seen as a figure rather close to Mr Putin until he fell out with the Kremlin - declared at a press conference that he was troubled by allegations of voting violations and would be demanding an official investigation.

The situation, he said, had been particularly "dire" in Moscow and St Petersburg. He said that he was compiling a dossier of information which he would be passing on to the courts.

The outburst by veteran Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov was even more remarkable.

Usually a placid figure, he was visibly angry. In a furious denunciation of Mr Putin's campaign, he called him "the main threat" to Russia.

He claimed the country was run by a mafia-like clique, that had in its pocket both the police, the courts and the chairman of the electoral commission in charge of these elections.

Asked whether he would congratulate the winner, he said he would not, as this "illegitimate and dishonest" election had been a travesty, so everyone had lost.

"Russia too has lost," he said.

It was an astonishingly scathing attack on Mr Putin, from an unexpected quarter. It showed the range of voices aligning themselves in opposition to the Kremlin is far wider than in previous years.

And with an opposition protest rally set to meet in Moscow on Monday evening, the story is not over.

Mr Putin's main challenge was never just to be able to declare himself the winner, but to convince the entire nation, 12 years on, that he was still the "father of the nation".

It will take more than one hastily staged election victory party to convince his sceptics that he really does have the country behind him.