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Putin cruises to victory in Russia, tells supporters: 'Success awaits us!'

March 18,2018 22:18

MOSCOW — Vladimir Putin cruised to victory Sunday for another six-year presidential term after an election that was long on spectacle and short on suspense. From the Arctic to the International Space Station, Russia rolled out an elaborate election ...

Trevor Hughes, USA TODAY Published 10:59 a.m. ET March 18, 2018 | Updated 5:28 p.m. ET March 18, 2018

Russian President Vladimir Putin — the country's longest-serving leader since former Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin — was headed to an overwhelming victory in Sunday's election for another six-year term, according to incomplete returns.
Putin's re-election was widely expected, and elections officials had pushed hard for a strong turnout to claim an indisputable mandate. Putin has been president or prime minister since December 1999, making him the only leader that a generation of Russians have ever known.
With ballots counted from 60% of the precincts, Putin won more than 75% of the vote, according to the Central Elections Commission.
By 7 p.m. Moscow time, authorities said turnout had hit nearly 60%.
Putin thanked thousands of people who rallied near Red Square after the vote. He hailed those who voted for him as a “big national team,” adding that “we are bound for success.” 
He said the nation needs unity to move forward and urged the crowd to “think about the future of our great motherland.” He then led the enthusiastic crowd to chant “Russia!” the Associated Press reported. 
Putin, in his speech, also dismissed British accusations of Russia’s involvement in an ex-spy’s poisoning as “nonsense,” adding that Moscow is ready to cooperate with London in the probe.
He referred to the March 4 attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter as a “tragedy.” He also said if the British claim that they were poisoned by a Soviet-designed nerve agent were true, the victims would have died instantly. They remain hospitalized in serious condition.
Earlier Sunday, there were widespread reports of ballot-box stuffing and forced voting, but complaints of voting irregularities will likely do little to undermine Putin, according to the AP.  
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was barred from running against Putin, said he boycotted the election and had urged supporters not to vote because of the absence of any real competition, despite seven other names on the ballot. Navalny was prevented from running because of a criminal conviction widely viewed as politically motivated.
Putin's re-election comes amid rising tension with the West, particularly with the United Kingdom, which last week accused Russia of using a nerve agent to poison a former spy and his daughter living in England. In addition, U.S. federal prosecutors are investigating whether Russian-linked groups interfered during the 2016 presidential election.
Russia's election monitors reported irregularities at voting stations across country, even though authorities were under orders to ensure that the voting was free and fair after violations marred Putin's last election in 2012. Putin had faced a serious opposition movement then but has since boosted his popularity with Russia's actions in Ukraine and Syria. 

People cast their ballots at a polling station in Yelizovo, Russian Far East, Russia, on March. 18, 2018.
 (Photo: Alexander Petrov, AP)

The English-language Moscow Times newspaper marked the election with a series of stories on young people it dubbed “Generation P,” highlighting some of the 1.3 million people born the year Putin first became president.
Putin was first named president in late 1999 after the resignation of Boris Yeltsin and was elected to two terms. In 2008 he was replaced by Dmitry Medvedev, who named him prime minister, and then Putin was again elected president in 2012.

Members of a local election commission prepare a polling station ahead of Russia's presidential election in Simferopol, Crimea. The election will be held on March 18, 2018.
 (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

The eight presidential candidates were barred from campaigning Sunday, but much-loved entertainers appealed to voters in a televised message aired throughout the day to fulfill their civic duty and go to the polls. Voters also faced billboards celebrating Russian greatness — a major theme of Putin's leadership.
Putin has traveled across Russia pledging to raise wages, pour more funds into the country's crumbling health care and education and modernize dilapidated infrastructure.
Yevgeny Roizman, the mayor of Russia's fourth-largest city, Yekaterinburg, told rhe Associated Press that local officials and state employees have all received orders "from higher up" to make sure the presidential vote turnout is over 60%. 
"They are using everything: schools, kindergartens, hospitals — the battle for the turnout is unprecedented," said Roizman, one of the rare opposition politicians to hold a significant elected office.
Authorities also appealed to patriotic feelings by holding the vote on the anniversary of Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. Polls show that most Russians see the takeover of that Black Sea peninsula as a major achievement despite subsequent Western sanctions.
Turnout-boosting efforts have been the most visible feature of the campaign. In Moscow, authorities spent $870,000 on balloons and decorations at polling stations. In Moscow, first-time voters were given free tickets for pop concerts, and health authorities offered free cancer screenings at selected polling stations. In the southern city of Tambov, the state-sponsored Youth Parliament backed an Instagram competition. Voters who took selfies at polling stations could enter a raffle for high-end electronics, including an iPhone X.
More: What you didn't know about Russian President Putin
More: Putin's Russia: These are the candidates in an election some call a charade
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