Putin wins election with no effective opposition

President Vladimir Putin speaks at his election campaign headquarters in Moscow, Russia, March 17, 2024. [Reuters]

Russian President Vladimir Putin celebrated winning a new six-year term after an election that gave voters no real alternatives due to the intimidation or jailing of most potential opponents.

Putin told supporters that he considered the election democratic and dismissed those who protested the vote.

"We have many tasks ahead. But when we are consolidated - no matter who wants to intimidate us, suppress us - nobody has ever succeeded in history, they have not succeeded now, and they will not succeed ever in the future," Putin said.

The three-day election that began Friday to extend Putin’s 24-year rule took place in a tightly controlled environment where no public criticism of Putin or his war in Ukraine was allowed.

Results from Russia’s Central Election Commission showed Putin with 87% of the vote with most ballots counted.

The Reuters news agency reported communist candidate Nikolai Kharitonov coming in second with just under 4% of the vote, newcomer Vladislav Davankov third, and ultra-nationalist Leonid Slutsky fourth.

"The elections are obviously not free nor fair given how Mr. Putin has imprisoned political opponents and prevented others from running against him," the White House's national security council spokesperson said, according to Reuters.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly address Sunday that Putin has become “addicted to power.”

“There is no evil he will not commit to prolong his personal power,” Zelenskyy said.

British Foreign Secretary David Cameron criticized the voting as having a “lack of choice for voters” as well as no independent monitoring by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

“This is not what free and fair elections look like,” Cameron said on X.

Putin's fiercest political foe, Alexey Navalny, died in an Arctic prison last month, and other critics are either in jail or in exile. But heeding Navalny’s last political request, long lines of voters showed up at polling stations in major cities precisely at noon to cast symbolic, if futile votes against Putin, 71.

Associates of Navalny encouraged people to take part in the protest, which Navalny himself endorsed shortly before his sudden death in a Siberian prison in February.

Others, meanwhile, said they would write in Navalny’s name. His death last month prompted grassroots memorials across the country that Russian authorities were quick to stamp out.

Several dozen cases of vandalism at polling stations were also reported.

The group OVD-Info, which tracks political arrests in Russia, said that more than 50 people were arrested in 14 cities across the country Sunday.

Similar protests appeared to take place at Russian Embassies around the world. At polling stations at Russian diplomatic missions in Australia and Armenia, Kazakhstan and Japan, hundreds of Russians stood in line at noon.

And in the German capital of Berlin, Navalny’s widow, Yulia Navalnaya, who has become the face of his campaign following his death, appeared at the Russian Embassy to take part in the protest, while others present clapped and chanted her name.

“Alexey was fighting for very simple things: for freedom of speech, for fair elections, for democracy and our right to live without corruption and war,” Navalnaya said in a message to a rally in Budapest on March 15. “Putin is not Russia. Russia is not Putin.”

Putin, in his first public comment on Navalny’s passing, called his death a “sad event.” Putin also said he had supported a prisoner swap involving Navalny.

But despite the show of opposition to Putin, the longtime Russian leader’s victory was not in doubt. If he completes the new six-year term, Putin would pass Josef Stalin and become Russia’s longest-serving leader in more than two centuries.