epa06611677 A Russian woman examines the list of candidates at a polling station in the Sovkhoz Imeni Lenina during the presidential elections, outside Moscow, Russia, 18 March 2018. Eight candidates are contesting for the presidential seat, including the incumbent president Vladimir Putin, who is projected to win his fourth term in the Kremlin. EPA/SERGEI ILNITSKY
A voter studies the list of presidential candidates © EPA

Russian voters flocked to the polls on Sunday, an early indication that President Vladimir Putin could be on course to have his re-election victory bolstered by a high turnout.

Officials said the number of people voting was already sharply higher than six years ago, although there were widespread complaints about polling irregularities on Sunday morning.

Ella Pamfilova, chair of Russia’s Central Election Commission, said that as of 10am Moscow time, 16.55 per cent of registered voters had already cast their ballot, as polling stations closed in the Asian part of the country and voting was well under way in its European heartland. That is more than double the figure at the same time of day in the 2012 presidential election, and surpasses equivalent figures in all four presidential elections during Mr Putin’s 18 years in power.

However, election observers reported apparent violations of electoral rules, such as large groups of voters suddenly appearing at polling stations together early in the morning, voters complaining about having been pressured to vote, people voting more than once and election officials barring access to polling stations for independent observers.

Golos, Russia’s most experienced non-governmental election monitor, had received 201 reports about potential violations from 46 regions as of 10am. “[Our] greatest concern is the administrative mobilisation of voters,” it said.

Opposition activists and independent observers said a new system, under which voters can vote in districts other than that of their household registration through a simple application until shortly before election day, was being abused by the authorities. Golos singled out reports of students, employees and subordinates being forced to write applications for voting at certain locations.

They were being “attached to polling stations located at their place of work or study, where it is possible to exercise control over their participation in the voting”, Golos said.

In Moscow’s Gagarinsky, a middle class district in the south-west of the capital where Mr Putin has struggled in the past, business was brisk at polling stations, with many saying they had cast their vote for the president.

“I voted for Putin. Who else could you vote for?” said Sofia, a retiree. “If it is a fair election he will win.”

Mr Putin polled just under 38 per cent there in 2012, one of the weakest results anywhere in the country. At local elections last year, opposition parties won all 12 of the district’s seats.

“I did not vote for Putin but my choice won’t make a difference,” said Anton, in his mid-30s, who voted for Pavel Grudinin, a millionaire collective farm director who is on the ballot for the Communist party.

“Can I talk about this? Are there snipers?” he joked as the Financial Times asked him if he voted for Mr Putin.

TOPSHOT - Presidential candidate, President Vladimir Putin walks out of a voting booth at a polling station during Russia's presidential election in Moscow on March 18, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / Yuri KADOBNOVYURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images
Vladimir Putin after casting his vote in Moscow © AFP

Election monitors at one polling station from the Public Opinion Research Centre (VCIOM), a pro-Kremlin pollster, said turnout was up so far.

But the real boost for Mr Putin is expected to come from elsewhere. In past elections, a cluster of almost 20 regions in the North Caucasus, the Volga region and Siberia have delivered extremely high results for Mr Putin at an extremely high turnout — figures that proved controversial as independent observers noted some of the most drastic falsifications in these territories.

On Sunday, preliminary figures from 17 regions in the eastern parts of Russia showed that turnout in 16 of them was higher on Sunday than six years ago. Some of these regions, such as the far-eastern territory of Chukotka, the republic of Bashkortostan in the southern Urals and the southern Siberian region of Tuva, registered massive rises in turnout.

Dagestan, the majority Muslim republic in the North Caucasus, is another region with a history of falsifications. The territory gave Mr Putin 93 per cent of the vote in 2012, the most anywhere except for neighbouring Chechnya. In the regional capital of Makhachkala, the mayor declared turnout to have reached 39 per cent by 10am, even though election commission data showed considerably lower figures.

A team of just 70 election monitors rushed around the province attempting to record violations at the more than 1,900 polling stations. During the 2016 parliamentary elections, monitors recorded turnout of 21.27 per cent at polling stations where they were present, while others without monitors reported totals exceeding 90 per cent.

“It’s a shame there are so few of us. We can’t be everywhere,” said Aida Mirmaksumova, a monitor at School No. 39 in Makhachkala.

At several polling stations in Makhachkala, loud traditional Caucasian music played as election officials, who had not removed portraits of Mr Putin from municipal buildings as required by law, handed out baked goods to voters.

Observers recorded numerous violations including ballot stuffing and attempts to block them from monitoring the vote. One was physically assaulted by a municipal government employee, who was arrested by police.

People queue before receiving their ballots and casting their votes at a polling station during the presidential election in Moscow, Russia March 18, 2018. REUTERS/Grigory Dukor
People queue to get their ballots at a polling station in Moscow © Reuters

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