Putin casts ballot in Russia's election

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The run-up to Russia's last presidential election in 2012 was marked by protests across the country against Putin's return as head of state after 4 years as prime minister.

Among Putin's challengers is Ksenia Sobchak, a 36-year-old TV host who has campaigned on a liberal platform and criticized Putin's policies.

With ballots from 80 per cent of Russia's precincts counted by early Monday, Putin had amassed 76 per cent of the vote.

Putin, who has run under the slogan "a strong president - a strong Russia", has declined to take part in televised debates and shot no new material for his own campaign advertisements.

He faced seven minor candidates on the ballot.

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 by the Kremlin. "Last election I didn't vote for Putin, I don't even remember who I voted for". Britain and Russian Federation last week announced expulsions of diplomats over the spy case and the US issued new sanctions.

The election comes as Russia's relations with Western countries remain strained over its annexation of Crimea 4 years ago.

Crimea and Russia's subsequent support of separatists in eastern Ukraine led to an array of United States and European sanctions that, along with falling oil prices, damaged the Russian economy and slashed the ruble's value by half.

Putin, who has been in power for 18 years, was widely expected to glide into another six-year tenure with most polls suggesting he could take around 70 per cent of the vote. Just weeks ago, he announced that Russian Federation has developed advanced nuclear weapons capable of evading missile defences. The Russian military campaign that bolsters the Syrian government is clearly aimed at strengthening Russia's foothold in the Middle East and Russia eagerly eyes possible reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula as a lucrative economic opportunity. Voters also faced billboards celebrating Russian greatness - a major theme of Putin's leadership.

Casting his ballot in Moscow, Putin said he would be pleased with "any" result that gave him the right to continue serving as president.

"The program that I propose for the country is the right one", he declared.

Given the lack of real competition in the presidential race, authorities struggled against voter apathy, putting many of Russia's almost 111 million voters under intense pressure to cast ballots.

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Do you think that I will stay here until I'm 100 years old? Explaining why they wanted the photograph, the woman said: "I work in a kindergarten, I need it for work".

He spoke on condition of anonymity because he fears repercussions from his employers if he speaks publicly about the electoral pressure.

She said she wouldn't go to vote if she wasn't forced to.

Yevgeny Roizman, the mayor of Russia's fourth-largest city Yekaterinburg, says local officials and state employees have received orders "from higher up" to make sure the presidential vote turnout is over 60 percent.

In Moscow, first-time voters were being given free tickets for pop concerts, and health authorities were offering free cancer screenings at selected polling stations.

Putin is so certain of winning that authorities are investing instead in massive get-out-the-vote efforts to produce a turnout that would embolden the Russian leader both domestically and internationally.

Some 145,000 observers were monitoring the voting in the world's largest country, including 1,500 foreigners and representatives from opposition leader Alexei Navalny's political movement.

Footage from Russian voting stations, which have been verified to have been filmed today, have emerged that appear to show officials stuffing ballot papers into boxes.

Navalny, whose group also monitored the vote, dismissed Putin's challengers on Sunday's ballot as "puppets". In Moscow, authorities spent $870,000 on balloons and decorations at polling stations.

In Artyom, a man tossed several ballots into the box, according to Tatiana Gladkhikh, the head of the regional election commission.

Sunday marked four years since Putin signed a treaty that declared Crimea part of Russian Federation following its annexation from Ukraine, a move that led to the outbreak of a pro-Kremlin insurgency in the east of the ex-Soviet country, in a conflict that claimed more than 10,000 lives.

Security forces are surrounding Russian facilities in Ukraine amid anger over the Ukrainian government's refusal to allow ordinary Russians to vote for president.

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