MOSCOW -- Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to be heading for a landslide victory in the March 18 presidential election amid reports of hundreds of violations at polling stations across the country.
The Central Election Commission said after the polling stations closed that with 21.3 percent of ballots counted, Putin has 71.97 percent of the vote in an election that is set to hand him a fourth term in office.
Exit polls from two main pollsters -- including state-owned VTsIOM -- showed Putin winning with more than 73 percent of the vote.
According to the election commission, Communist Party candidate Pavel Grudinin was second with 15.7 percent of the vote, followed by flamboyant ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky with 6.9 percent, and journalist and TV personality Ksenia Sobchak with 1.3 percent. The four other candidates had less than 1 percent.
The 65-year-old incumbent is riding a wave of government-stoked popularity on the fourth anniversary of Moscow's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region and in the wake of a military intervention in Syria that has been played up on state-controlled television as a patriotic success.
Amid government efforts to get out the vote and reports of voter fraud, much attention was focused on whether Russians would turn out in big enough numbers to hand Putin a convincing mandate.
Casting his ballot in Moscow, Putin said "any" result that allows him to continue as president would be a "success."
"I am sure the program I am offering is the right one," Putin said.
Reports of violations at polling stations mounted as the day progressed.
By late afternoon Moscow time, the independent election monitor Golos said it had received reports of 2,263 alleged violations, including ballot boxes placed out of sight of observation cameras and observers being blocked from carrying out their jobs.
Russian election officials said they were looking into several reports of voting violations.
It was also clear efforts were being made to get out the vote.
On Russia’s Pacific coast, in the Khabarovsk region, local officials offered food at a discount to lure people to the polls.
Voters were being bused in across Russia to the polls, according to supporters of Aleksei Navalny, the opposition leader barred from running in the election.
They also reported hundreds of cases of alleged voter fraud, notably in Moscow and St. Petersburg, two areas where Putin has low support.
Some voters in various Russian regions said they had been pressured by their employers or teachers to vote and take a photograph of themselves at the polling station as evidence of their participation.
While officials said voting in the Russian capital was steady and higher than the previous presidential election, in 2012, apathy was palpable at some polling stations.
The election comes two weeks after the poisoning of a former Russian spy with a potent nerve agent -- an attack Britain blames on Moscow -- has made Moscow's already severely strained ties with the West even worse.
In addition, the United States on March 15 imposed another round of sanctions on Russian entities and individuals in connection with what Washington says was Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
These tensions, however, may only bolster Putin's popular image as a defender of Russia and give credence to his assertions that Russia is surrounded by foreign enemies.
Maria Nazachik, an 88-year-old admirer of the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, told RFE/RL in Moscow why she voted for Putin.
"He's a very good man," who has guaranteed that there is "no war" in Russia, Nazachik said, adding "there's nobody else."
Other voters complained the election did not offer a "real choice."
"There is no real choice," 20-year-old Yevgeny Kiva, who came to one Moscow polling station not to vote but because he was paid by the local election committee to wear a clown suit and dance with children to pop music blaring from a mobile sound system.
"Give your smile to the world," two young boys sang into the sound system's microphone as Kiva twirled, expressionless.
Several people said they were pressured by employers to vote.
One middle-aged many who declined to give his name for fear of repercussions said management at the local textile plant where he has worked for more than 20 years threatened to fire employees who didn't go to the polls.
At a polling station in Zelenodolsk, 800 kilometers east of Moscow, five people photographed themselves voting. When they were asked why, a young woman in the group said, "It's a photographic report for our bosses," Reuters reported.
An election commission worker in Russia's southern Daghestan region, which historically has reported enormously high official turnout figures, told AFP that dozens of men entered a polling station where he was working and assaulted an independent monitor before proceeding to stuff a ballot box.
Russian Election Commission officials said they were investigating several reports of voting irregularities.
One incident was recorded in the Moscow suburb of Lyubertsy. Irina Konovalova, the head of the election commission for the Moscow region, said all ballots in the box were declared invalid.
In Artyom, in Russia's Far East, a man tossed several ballots into the box, according to Tatyana Gladkikh, the head of the regional election commission. She said the ballot box was sealed and the man was arrested.
The Central Election Commission also said it was looking into claims of ballot stuffing in Siberia's Kemerovo region.
The other seven candidates trailed far behind Putin in opinion polls ahead of the vote, with Grudinin polling 7 percent and Sobchak about 2 percent. According to the Kremlin-friendly All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion, Putin was polling 69 percent support.
According to a Gallup poll, taken late in 2017, 80 percent of Russians approve of Putin's leadership, while only 40 percent have confidence in the reliability of Russia's elections.
The other candidates were Zhirinovsky, nationalist Sergei Baburin, Communists of Russia candidate Maksim Suraikin, centrist Boris Titov, and liberal Grigory Yavlinsky.
Navalny, Putin's only significant potential rival, has been barred from participating in the election because of a felony embezzlement conviction that has been widely seen as trumped up and politically motivated.
Navalny, who has dismissed the election as "the reappointment of Vladimir Putin," has called on voters to boycott. The Kremlin and local authorities have launched a wide-ranging carrot-and-stick effort to boost turnout in order to bolster the appearance of the election's legitimacy.
In the early evening on March 18, Sobchak appeared together with Navalny on his official YouTube channel and suggested they hold discussions about uniting Russia's notoriously fractious liberal opposition forces after the election.
Navalny rejected the suggestion, accusing Sobchak of helping to legitimize the election with her candidacy:
Navalny told Sobchak she had "played the role of a caricature of a liberal candidate" and claimed that she told him she had been offered "huge money" to run. Sobchak denied it.
On Russia’s Pacific coast, in the Khabarovsk region, local officials brought eggs, tinned peas, and frozen pike to be sold at a discount of between 10 and 30 percent to voters at polling stations, according to Reuters.
"By doing this we hope to attract voters to the polling stations and we think we can increase turnout," said Nikolai Kretsu, chairman of the consumer market committee in the regional administration. "The second objective is to strengthen allegiance towards the authorities."
Navalny supporters said turnout figures tabulated by their unofficial observers -- some of whom are being blocked from working -- were broadly in line with official data, but noted voters were being bussed to polling stations "in every region" of the country.
They said hundreds of cases of alleged voter fraud had been reported in Moscow and St. Petersburg, as well as Bashkortostan in the Urals region.
Support for Putin is much lower in Moscow and St. Petersburg compared with the rest of Russia.
Russian media have cited unidentified Kremlin sources as saying the government was aiming for a turnout of 70 percent, with 70 percent of the vote going to Putin.
Security was intensified across the country, after police in Moscow announced plans to put 17,000 officers, National Guard troops, and other security personnel on the streets on election day.
The Central Election Committee refused to accredit independent election monitors organized by Navalny, as well as those organized by the Golos election-monitoring NGO.
The campaign has been low-key, with Putin largely declining to participate. The other candidates held a series of nationally televised "debates" that frequently deteriorated into shouting matches, name-calling, and fisticuffs.
Putin, who has been president or prime minister since 1999, would be 71 when the six-year term expires in 2024. Under the current constitution, he would not be eligible to seek another consecutive term. However, he could repeat the tactic he used in 2008 when he allowed Dmitry Medvedev to take the presidency for one term while he continued to wield decisive power as prime minister -- or look for another way to retain power.
Opponents say Putin has not presented a detailed program for his expected new term and has said little about how goals he set out in a March 1 address to the nation can be achieved. Putin skipped campaign debates and did not set out his plans in a series of newspaper articles, as he did before the 2012 election.
If no candidate secures a majority, a second round of voting would be held on April 8.
Voting was also taking place among Russian citizens living outside the country.
The state-run TASS news agency said that members of the Bellingshausen polar station in Antarctica went to the polls amid “blizzard, snow, strong wind, and storms.”
Asked about turnout, a local official said, “"It is normal. Everyone came and voted."
Meanwhile, TASS reported that protesters called on Russian citizens to boycott the vote at a polling station in Auckland, New Zealand, although it said voting was not disrupted. It not describe the nature of the protests.
“Some citizens protested against the voting, but those who came” to vote were able to do so, Valery Tereshchenko, Russia’s ambassador to New Zealand, said, adding that there were 3,723 Russians registered to vote in the country.