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Russians vote in an election that holds little suspense

President Vladimir Putin looks set to extend his rule by six more years after he stifled dissent

Voters in Russia headed to the polls on Friday for a three-day presidential election that is all but certain to extend President Vladimir Putin’s rule.

The election takes place against the backdrop of a ruthless crackdown by Putin that has crippled independent media and prominent rights groups and given him full control of the political system. It also comes as Moscow’s war in Ukraine enters its third year.

Voters will cast their ballots Friday through Sunday at polling stations across the vast country’s 11 time zones, as well as in illegally annexed regions of Ukraine.

The first polling stations opened in Russia’s easternmost regions, Chukotka and Kamchatka, at 8 am local time.

The election holds little suspense since Putin is running for his fifth term virtually unchallenged. His political opponents are either in jail or in exile abroad, and the fiercest of them, Alexei Navalny, died in a remote Arctic penal colony recently.

The three other candidates on the ballot are low-profile politicians from token opposition parties that toe the Kremlin’s line.

Observers have little to no expectation that the election will be free and fair. Beyond the fact that voters have been presented with little choice, the possibilities for independent monitoring are very limited.

Only registered candidates or state-backed advisory bodies can assign observers to polling stations, decreasing the likelihood of independent watchdogs. With balloting over three days in nearly 100,000 polling stations in the country, any true monitoring is difficult.

Occupied regions take part in vote

Ukraine and the West have also condemned Russia for holding the vote in Ukrainian regions that Moscow’s forces have seized and occupied.

Kyiv has denounced the exercise as an illegitimate effort by Moscow to tighten control over its neighbour.

Early voting has already begun in the occupied parts of four Ukrainian regions close to the front line: Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Donetsk and Luhansk.

In Crimea, which was annexed from Ukraine by Putin in 2014, polls opened on Friday.

Many Ukrainians fled these regions – or were deported by Russia – after the military operation started two years ago, and there are reports of people being forced to vote at gunpoint.

The election is taking place under highly distorted and restrictive conditions, with no international election observers in Ukraine.

The Russian government is prodding Ukrainians with billboards and posters to vote “for their President” and to “take part in the future of our country.”

While there are polling stations, Russia has also dispatched officials with ballot boxes to people’s homes, saying it is safer for them to vote on their doorsteps.

In the Donetsk region, the Ukrainian mayor of Mariupol, Vadym Boychenko, said it was “impossible to call this an election”.

There have been multiple reports of Russian-installed authorities forcing people to vote, and threatening to withhold medical care or other social benefits from those who do not.

Russia’s opposition

The opposition, meanwhile, hopes to use the vote to demonstrate their discontent with both the war and the Kremlin.

The Kremlin banned two politicians from the ballot who sought to run on an antiwar agenda and attracted genuine — albeit not overwhelming — support.

Russia’s scattered opposition has urged those unhappy with Putin or the war to show up at the polls at noon on Sunday, the final day of voting, in protest. The strategy was endorsed by Navalny not long before his death.

“We need to use election day to show that we exist and there are many of us, we are actual, living, real people and we are against Putin. … What to do next is up to you. You can vote for any candidate except Putin. You could ruin your ballot,” his widow, Yulia Navalnaya, said.

Golos, Russia’s renowned independent election observer group, said in a report this week that: “The current elections will not be able to reflect the real mood of the people. The distance between citizens and decision-making about the fate of the country has become greater than ever.”

Source: euronews

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