Vladimir Putin scored a decisive victory in Russia's presidential election Sunday to return to the Kremlin and extend his hold on power for six more years. His eyes brimming with tears, he defiantly proclaimed to a sea of supporters that they had triumphed over opponents intent on "destroying Russia's statehood and usurping power."
Putin's win was never in doubt as many across the vast country still see him as a guarantor of stability and the defender of a strong Russia against a hostile world, an image he has carefully cultivated during 12 years in power.
Accounts by independent observers of extensive vote-rigging, however, looked set to strengthen the resolve of opposition forces whose unprecedented protests in recent months have posed the first serious challenge to Putin's heavy-handed rule. Another huge demonstration was set for Monday evening in central Moscow.
Putin claimed victory Sunday night when fewer than a quarter of the votes had been counted. He spoke to a rally just outside the Kremlin walls of tens of thousands of supporters, many of them government workers or employees of state-owned companies who had been ordered to attend.
"I promised that we would win and we have won!" Putin shouted to the flag-waving crowd. "We have won in an open and honest struggle."
Putin, 59, said the election showed that "our people can easily distinguish a desire for renewal and revival from political provocations aimed at destroying Russia's statehood and usurping power."
The West can expect Putin to continue the tough policies he has pursued even as prime minister, including opposing U.S. plans to build a missile shield in Europe and resisting international military intervention in Syria.
Exit polls cited by state television predicted Putin would get about 59 percent of the vote. With more than 80 percent of precincts counted nationwide, Putin was leading with 65 percent, the Central Election Commission said. Complete results were expected Monday.
Communist Party candidate Gennady Zyuganov was a distant second, followed by Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets whose candidacy was approved by the Kremlin in what was seen as an effort to channel some of the protest sentiment. The clownish nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and socialist Sergei Mironov trailed behind. The leader of the liberal opposition Yabloko party was barred from the race.
"These elections are not free. ... That's why we'll have protests tomorrow. We will not recognize the president as legitimate," said Mikhail Kasyanov, who was Putin's first prime minister before going into opposition.
Prokhorov said on Channel One television after the vote that his observers had been kept away from some polling stations and were beaten on two occasions.
Web cameras were installed in Russia's more than 90,000 polling stations, a move initiated by Putin in response to complaints of ballot stuffing and falsified vote counts in December's parliamentary elections.
The OSCE, which fielded about 220 observers, was to present its findings on Monday.