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18 Mar 2018

Russians vote as Vladimir Putin seeks tighter grip on power

Moscow (CNN)Russians began voting Sunday in a presidential election widely expected to cement President Vladimir Putin's power for another six years.

Polls first opened in the Far East, and 109 million voters are eligible to cast ballots across the 11 time zones of the world's biggest country.

It's an enormous logistical undertaking for a vote that is essentially a one-sided affair. There is no meaningful opposition in the running, and Putin's fiercest political opponent, Alexei Navalny, has been barred from competing. Despite a lackluster campaign period, the 65-year-old President is the clear front-runner.

Putin is seeking a fourth term as president and is already the country's longest-serving leader since the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. A win would mean a Putin-led Russia until 2024, after which he is constitutionally obliged to stand down.

Putin cast his vote in Moscow on Sunday morning. "I am sure of the correctness of the course that I propose for the country," he said, according to state news agency RIA-Novosti.

While the vote may seem like a repeat of the Putin-dominated 2012 election, this one is particularly charged with anti-Western sentiment. With few election-related events to report on, Russians are seeing more news of the country's diplomatic crises with the UK and United States.

Voter apathy

The Kremlin, however, is concerned about turnout. The uneventful campaign period and lack of competition have left some Russians uninspired. Navalny has called for a boycott of the election since he was squeezed out of the race.

A wave of anti-government protests in the past year also suggests growing fatigue with corruption scandals seeping through the Kremlin and Putin's inner circle of oligarchs.

Nonetheless, Putin is genuinely a popular figure among many Russians, who see him as a strongman who lifted the country out of post-Soviet chaos to stability.

Polls in the past have also shown that Putin's popularity rises during times of confrontation with the West, so Russians appear to be shrugging off the current diplomatic crises.

Decoded: Everything you need to know about Russia

Russia-UK relations plunged into turmoil over the poisoning of a Russian ex-spy, his daughter and a police officer on British soil earlier this month. British Prime Minister Theresa May said it was "highly likely" the Kremlin was behind the attack, and both countries have expelled diplomats in an ongoing tit for tat.

Russia has also vowed to retaliate after the United States imposed new sanctions on the country this week over its reported cyberattacks and meddling in the 2016 presidential election. In both cases, Moscow has dismissed the accusations of involvement in the attacks.

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