UST-DJEGUTA, Russia, March 18 (Reuters) - Russians voted in a presidential election on Sunday that was expected to give Vladimir Putin an easy victory, but his opponents alleged officials were compelling people to come to the polls so that a low turnout does not tarnish the win.
Opinion polls give Putin, the incumbent, support of around 70 percent, or nearly 10 times the backing of his nearest challenger.
Another term will take him to nearly a quarter century in power — a longevity among Kremlin leaders second only to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
Many voters credit Putin, a 65-year-old former KGB spy, with standing up for Russia's interests in what they view as a hostile outside world.
Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region, alleged Kremlin meddling in the U.S. presidential election, and Moscow's bombing campaign in Syria, have been condemned in the West. But for most people at home, they have only burnished Putin's reputation as a strong leader.
A row with Britain over allegations the Kremlin used a nerve toxin to poison a Russian double agent in a sleepy English city — denied by Moscow — has not dented Putin's standing.
"I voted for Putin," said Lyubov Kachan, a teacher in the settlement of Ust-Djeguta, in southern Russia.
"If anything is not going our way right now, that's thanks to the world which treats us so negatively, while he is trying to stand up to that," she said.
Russia prepares to re-elect Vladimir Putin
Russia prepares to re-elect Vladimir Putin
Veronika Baikova, 41, Russian citizen who plans to boycott the upcoming presidential election, poses for a picture as she visits her relatives in the village of Yukhovichi, Belarus, February 7, 2018. "Me and my friends will not go to the polling station - we don't believe in this election," said Baikova. "But if I go to the polls, I will vote against everyone and especially against Putin. His policies have not given us anything good over the years". REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko
Vasily Slonov, 48, artist and supporter of presidential candidate Pavel Grudinin, poses for a picture inside his workshop in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, February 8, 2018. "I don't think that this will be Putin's final term in office. In fact I see a sort of messianic energy in Putin," said Slonov. "He?s not just any other person, but something of an instrument in God's hands. He's not simply a politician." REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin
Natalia Dementieva, 44, an accountant who is currently unemployed and supporter of presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak, poses for a picture in Moscow, Russia, January 14, 2018. "She speaks the truth, openly. She doesn't lie. She raises issues which are taboo under our government. For example, Crimea. Which means she's not afraid," said Dementieva. "The idea that things have improved, I'm not seeing it. Things have gotten worse. They have started to control what people think even more than during the Communist era. People are afraid again... Ksenia is a politician of the future." REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
Yulia Dyuzheva, 22, student and supervisor of the "SUPERPUTIN" exhibition and supporter of presidential candidate Vladimir Putin, poses for a picture in Moscow, Russia, January 14, 2018. "I'd draw your attention to the colossal support of young people for the current government. As a representative of the younger generation, I can say that for us, young Russians, all the doors are open. Everyone is able to grab the opportunities presented and make the most of themselves, in whatever town or region," said Dyuzheva. "For me, Russia's current leader is taking the country down a very rational path, a path based on justice, openness, one which places a stress on values and traditions, and takes a very clear position on the global stage." REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
Andrei Vorontsov, 42, ataman of a local Cossack society and supporter of presidential candidate Vladimir Putin, poses for a picture in Mikhaylovsk town in Stavropol Region, Russia, February 21, 2018. "It's hard to say what the future will look like," said Vorontsov. "The way I see it, people can make assumptions, but it's God that decides. The way He rules it, that's how things will be." REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko
Alexander Reshetnyak, 42, Cossack ataman and supporter of presidential candidate Vladimir Putin, poses for a picture in Stavropol, Russia, February 16, 2018. "Of course, among the candidates right now, in my opinion no one can compete with our current president," said Reshetnyak. "There's no alternative. So yes, maybe these are elections without a genuine choice." REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko
Tanzurun Darisyu, 51, supporter of presidential candidate Vladimir Putin and head of a private farm located in Kara-Charyaa area in the south of Kyzyl town, the administrative centre of the Republic of Tyva (Tuva region), poses for a picture inside her yurt in Southern Siberia, Russia, February 14, 2018. "We, the Arat people, farmers, need to be able to be confident about what tomorrow will look like. We need this in order to expand and develop our farmsteads." said Darisyu. REUTERS/Ilya Naymushin
Anastasia Shevchenko, 38, head of the election campaign team for presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak, poses for a picture in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, February 13, 2018. "I want change, of course. First of all, in how this country is run. I hope that something will change. That's why I completely support my candidate's programme," said Shevchenko. "But at the same time, I completely understand that these elections don't decide anything. I just want new people in our politics." REUTERS/Sergey Pivovarov
Andrei Lukinykh, 46, engineer and supporter of presidential candidate Vladimir Putin, poses for a picture in Yevpatoriya, Crimea, February 20, 2018. "I am going to vote, because I want stability. As the saying goes, you don't change your horses when crossing a river (at a turning point, during a difficult time)," said Lukinykh. "Unlike the others, my candidate can provide the stability that's needed." REUTERS/Pavel Rebrov
Vitaly Bespalov, 26, journalist and supporter of presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak, poses for a picture, showing a tattoo depicting Sobchak on his arm, in St. Petersburg, Russia, February 14, 2018. "I am 26. Eighteen of those years, all of my conscious life, I have lived under a single president," said Bespalov. "I have been waiting too long for change." REUTERS/Anton Vaganov
Alexei Gruk, 45, mechanic and supporter of presidential candidate Pavel Grudinin, poses for a picture in St. Petersburg, Russia, January 31, 2018. "The most important thing for me is that our foreign policy stays the same," said Gruk. "To hell with the sanctions? So what if they don?t bring foreign stuff here anymore? As if that means we have to give up. I don't care." REUTERS/Anton Vaganov
Marina Kalinichenko, 54, a maths teacher and supporter of presidential candidate Vladimir Putin, poses for a picture in Yevpatoriya, Crimea, February 21, 2018. "As Mark Twain said, 'if voting made a difference, they wouldn't let us do it'. I really do support my candidate, but I also realise that it's the oligarchs that truly decide, who becomes president." said Kalinichenko. REUTERS/Pavel Rebrov
Maxim Gubsky, 21, student and supporter of presidential candidate Vladimir Zhirinovsky, poses for a picture in Stavropol, Russia, February 20, 2018. "I don't expect Putin to change things, and history proves this to be true," said Gubsky. "Little has changed over the past twenty years... to see progress in my life, we need a new president, new ambitions and new decisions." REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko
Svyatoslav Lomakin, 19, student and supporter of presidential candidate Vladimir Zhirinovsky, poses for a picture in Tula, Russia, January 26, 2018. "There's something of a shift, but I want real changes, which will improve our lives," said Lomakin. "I want there to be more opportunities for the young, so they can really make the most of their lives." REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
Vitaly Zubenko, 45, lawyer and supporter of presidential candidate Grigory Yavlinsky, poses for a picture in Stavropol, Russia, February 19, 2018. "When the people in power don't change, it's the foundation for corruption, it's what corruption needs to remain undefeated," said Zubenko. "We see that for the past four years, real incomes have been falling. A few people might have seen things improve, but overall, the population, the country, business, entrepreneurs, all economic structures, they're just about surviving. Things are getting worse and worse, unfortunately... We have to change the constitution, so that power never again finds itself in the hands of a single person." REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko
Discover More Like This
BACK TO SLIDE
The only real headache for Putin's campaign was the possibility many voters, including Putin supporters, would not bother to come to the polls because they felt the outcome was already a foregone conclusion.
Putin opponents alleged employers with close ties to the state were ordering staff to go and vote, and send back evidence.
Reuters reporters witnessed multiple people in different locations voting in groups, and then taking photos of themselves in front of the ballot boxes on their phones. Some arrived at polling stations on board private-hire buses.
In polling station 1515 in Zelenodolsk, 800 km (500 miles) east of Moscow, five people photographed themselves voting. Asked by a Reuters reporter why, one of the group, a young woman, said: "What do you mean why? It's a photographic report for our bosses."
At polling station number 216 in Ust-Djeguta, Marina Kostina was supervising two teenage girls who were photographing voters. Asked why one woman was photographed, Kostina said: "Her work asked her to report back."
Turnout nationwide was at 51.9 percent by 1400 GMT, official data showed. A low turnout would diminish Putin's authority within the ruling elite, which is founded in large part on his ability to mobilize the public behind him.
Nina Bostanova, a pensioner in Ust-Djeguta, said she decided not to vote. "What's the point? They'll get elected anyway. Why go and vote?" she said.
The first politician in years to challenge the Kremlin's grip on power, Alexei Navalny, is barred from the race because of a corruption conviction he says was fabricated. He is calling for a boycott of the election, saying it is an undemocratic farce.
Navalny's headquarters said activists sent out to monitor the vote reported people being bussed to polling stations by their employers.
"They need turnout," Navalny told a briefing. "Across the country people are being driven to the polling stations." He said he would decide later on Sunday whether to call supporters out into the streets in protest.
Previous demonstrations organized by Navalny have attracted several thousand people, and led to clashes with police, but they have been successfully contained by the authorities.
A day of voting across Russia's 11 time zones began at 2000 GMT on Saturday on Russia's eastern edge, in the Pacific coast city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. Voting will run until polls close at the westernmost point of Russia, the Kaliningrad region on the Baltic Sea, at 1800 GMT on Sunday.
The majority of voters see no viable alternative to Putin: he has total dominance of the political scene and state-run television, where most people get their news, gives lavish coverage of Putinand little airtime to his rivals.
Many Russians believe he has restored stability after the chaos that ensued after the Soviet Union collapsed.
A March 9 survey by state-run pollster VTsIOM gave Putin, who was first elected president in 2000, support of 69 percent. His nearest rival Pavel Grudinin, the Communist Party's candidate, was on just 7 percent.
Ella Pamfilova, head of the commission organizing the vote nationwide, has said any fraud will be stamped out.
She said those already alleging the election was rigged were biased and peddling "Russophobia," echoing a line used by the Kremlin to describe Western criticism of Russia.