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Putin Set for Kremlin Return as Spending Pledges Undo Slide

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during a rally with his supporters at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow. Photographer: Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is poised to win today’s Russian presidential election in the first round amid allegations of fraud similar to those that sparked protests after December’s parliamentary contest.

Putin will get about 60 percent of votes, more than the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff, surveys predict. Balloting for about 110 million voters began at 8 a.m. March 4 seven time zones from Moscow in Russia’s Far East. Exit-poll data is due from 9 p.m. in the capital, to be followed by preliminary results. The final outcome will be released within 10 days.

Putin, 59, who first came to power in 1999 and has been premier since handing the presidency to protégé Dmitry Medvedev in 2008, has faced unprecedented protests over a parliamentary vote in December that opposition parties say was rigged in favor of his ruling United Russia party. In trips across the country, Putin vowed to raise state salaries and pensions.

“Putin ran a very successful campaign and it’s clear that he’ll win on the first round,” Alexei Mukhin, head of Moscow’s the Center for Political Information, said March 3 by phone. “People will vote for him because none of his opponents were able to show they can resolve their problems like he does.”

Fraud Accusations

Accusations of voter fraud are exceeding reports received during the conduct of the election three months ago, Alexey Navalny, an anti-corruption blogger and opposition leader, told the Ekho Moskvy radio station. More than 3,000 reports of violations had been registered nationwide as of 6:40 p.m. in Moscow, the state-run RIA Novosti news service reported.

About 56.3 percent of eligible Russians had voted by 6 p.m. Moscow time, the central election commission said on its website. Putin and his wife, Lyudmila, cast their ballot at the Russian Academy of Sciences in the capital. Putin told reporters that he hoped for a “good result” for himself and that he hadn’t heard of any irregularities to that point.

The ruble has gained 9.7 percent against the dollar this year, the third-best performance among currencies tracked by Bloomberg, behind the Hungarian forint and the Polish zloty. The benchmark Micex stock index is up 15 percent.

The cost of insuring government debt against non-payment for five years using credit-default swaps fell to 179 basis points on March 2, its lowest level since Aug. 17, according to data provider CMA, which is owned by CME Group Inc. and compiles prices quoted by dealers in the privately negotiated market.

Communist Challenger

The premier’s closest competitor is Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov with 15 percent backing, according to Levada. He is followed by Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the Liberal Democratic Party with 8 percent, billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov with 6 percent and former Putin ally Sergei Mironov with 5 percent, the pollster said.

Putin built up his support from as low as 37 percent in a Jan. 20-23 poll that included undecided voters to 66 percent among those who determined their choice for president, Lev Gudkov, director of the independent Levada Center, told a Moscow news conference Feb. 24.

“A second round is very unlikely,” said Gudkov, who characterizes the Russian leader’s power base as medium and small cities and villages. “Populist promises contained the downward trend and led to elevated expectations.”

Spending Increase

As European nations adopt record austerity measures that have toppled governments from Spain to Romania, Putin has pledged to increase government spending by as much as 4.8 trillion rubles ($164 billion), or 5 percent of economic output, through 2018, Capital Economics estimates.

The additional expenditure will boost the incomes of pensioners, students, state workers and the military. Back in Moscow, after visits to as far away as Komsomolsk-na-Amure, 6,073 kilometers (3,774 miles) from the capital, Putin on Feb. 29 said the retirement age won’t be increased.

Putin will probably get 60.3 percent of the vote, the Moscow-based Public Opinion Foundation, known as FOM, said Feb. 27. The All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion, or VTsIOM, said Feb. 28 that he was headed for victory with 59.9 percent support.

Zyuganov is at 16.2 percent, Zhirinovsky may get 8.8 percent, Prokhorov 8.6 percent and Mironov 6.1 percent, FOM said by e-mail. Zyuganov was at 10.8 percent in the VTsIOM survey that included an option for those not planning to vote.

Levada’s Feb. 17-20 survey and VTsIOM’s Feb. 18-19 poll both had 1,600 respondents and a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points. FOM contacted 3,000 people and gave a margin of error of 2.5 percent.

Plummeting Support

Putin’s support plummeted last year, culminating in protests that brought thousands of people to the streets of Moscow and other major cities to challenge United Russia’s victory in the Dec. 4 elections.

They have demanded a rerun of the vote, in which the ruling party won just over half of seats, losing the two-thirds majority that allowed it to alter the constitution unilaterally.

Opposition parties including the Communists have alleged United Russia inflated its result, having won closer to 30 percent of the vote. International observers said the elections were marred by ballot-stuffing. The next protest is planned for tomorrow evening in Moscow.

Putin held his own rally in the Russian capital Feb. 23, the Defenders of the Fatherland national holiday, attracting tens of thousands of people to the Luzhniki stadium and rekindling the criticism of foreign powers such as the U.S. that characterized his first eight years as president.

“We have come here to say that we love Russia,” Putin told his supporters. No one will allow people interfere in Russia’s internal political affairs and “dictate their will to us, since we have a will of our own.”

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