Russia elections - Reuters - March 4, 2012
A man stands near a screen portraying the candidates and shows the preliminary results of the presidential elections in Moscow, March 4, 2012. Photo by Reuters
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Russian Prime Prime Minister was elected president with a clear victory in a Sunday vote, exit polls said. The Russian politician is likely to receive 58 percent of the popular vote, with his closest rival, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, receiving 17 percent, the polling group VTsIOM said.

Putin served two terms as president from 2000-2008. He received 71 percent support when re-elected in 2004.

Businessman Mikhail Prokhorov was on track to receive 9 percent, nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky 8 percent and social democrat Sergei Mironov 5 percent, the poll predicted.

Putin, 59, ran on a platform of political stability, economic development and military rearmament.

A parallel poll conducted by the research group FOM predicted slightly higher results for Putin, Zyuganov, and Prokhorov, and slightly lower support for Zhirinovsky and Mironov.

Official ballot counts with some 10 percent of ballots totaled showed Putin with 61 percent, Zyuganov with 17 percent, Prokhorov and Zhirnovsky tied at about 7.5 percent and Mironov having obtained 3.5 percent.

The numbers were certain to change somewhat as official ballot counts continued. A final count would be completed on Monday morning, Central Election Commission head Vladimir Churov said at a press conference.

The exit polls results, if borne out by actual final ballot counts, would be a powerful political victory for Putin, whom detractors had predicted would be unable to amass sufficient support to win the election without going to a run-off.

A run-off between the top two finishers is only required if no candidate obtains more than 50 percent support, according to Russian election law.

Such a second round appeared extremely unlikely in the face of the exit polls and initial ballot counts showing Putin with a comfortable lead.

Two political rallies, one in support of Putin and one against him, were scheduled to take place in Moscow after polls closed at 1800 GMT.

Putin cast his Sunday ballot at a polling site in Moscow's prestigious Academy of Sciences. "I got up, worked out, and then I came here," Putin said, in comments reported by Itar-Tass. "I'm sure people will vote responsibly." Putin's wife, Lyudmila, accompanied her husband in a rare public appearance.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Putin's political protege, experienced initial difficulty feeding his ballot into the slot of a mechanical ballot box, as he voted along with his wife, Svetlana, at a Moscow school.

Putin on Friday said he intended, if elected president, to name Medvedev his prime minister.

The Election Commission said the vote, with nearly 110 million registered voters ran smoothly and without major violations at more than 95,000 polling sites across Russia's nine time zones. More than 450,000 police and troops were on duty to provide security.

Independent election monitoring groups said their observers had seen dozens of incidents of attempted ballot box-stuffing or casting of multiple ballots. Most of the reports were from the cities of Moscow and St Petersburg.

The strong majority of the reports of violations ultimately proved to be groundless, but some appeared borne up by evidence and would be prosecuted, Churov said.

Stanislav Gorbukhin, Putin's campaign manager said the election was "the cleanest vote in the history of Russia."

Turnout appeared to have been strong, with 56 percent of registered voters across the country having cast ballots by 1200 GMT, according to commission data.

Polling began on schedule at 0800 (2200 Saturday GMT) in Russia's easternmost province of Chukotka, near the international dateline and the westernmost outreaches of the US state of Alaska.

A nationwide webcam system providing real-time video images from every polling site functioned well, even in far-flung settlements on the Arctic Sea and in Central Asia, election officials said.