MOSCOW (AP) — Vladimir Putin swept Sunday's presidential election to return to the Kremlin and extend his hold over Russia for six more years, incomplete returns showed. 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.
With fewer than a quarter of the votes counted, Putin spoke to tens of thousands of supporters at a rally just outside the Kremlin walls. Many of them were 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."
He ended his speech with the triumphant declaration: "Glory to Russia!"
Exit polls cited by state television predicted Putin would get about 59 percent of the vote. With more than 70 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.
The wave of protests began after a December parliamentary election in which observers produced evidence of widespread vote fraud. Protest rallies in Moscow drew tens of thousands in the largest outburst of public anger in post-Soviet Russia, demonstrating growing exasperation with the pervasive corruption and tight controls over political life under Putin, who was president from 2000 to 2008 before moving into the prime minister's office due to term limits.
Golos, Russia's leading independent elections watchdog, said it received numerous reports of "carousel voting," in which busloads of voters are driven around to cast ballots multiple times.
After the polls closed, Golos said the number of violations appeared just as high as in December.
"If during the parliamentary elections, we saw a great deal of ballot-box stuffing and carousel voting ... this time we saw the deployment of more subtle technologies," said Andrei Buzin, who heads the monitoring operations at Golos.
Alexei Navalny, one of the opposition's most charismatic leaders, said observers trained by his organization also reported seeing carousel voting and other violations.
A first-round victory was politically important for Putin, serving as proof that he retains majority support.
"They decided that a second round would be bad, unreliable and would show weakness," Navalny said. "That's why they ... falsified the elections."
There was no evidence that the scale of any election fraud was high enough to have pushed Putin over the 50 percent mark and save him from a runoff.
Putin's campaign chief, Stanislav Govorukhin, rejected the claims of violations, calling them "ridiculous."
Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, has become increasingly critical of Putin's rule. "These are not going to be honest elections, but we must not relent," he said after casting his ballot.
Putin has dismissed the protesters' demands, casting them as a coddled minority of urban elites manipulated by leaders working at the behest of the West. His claims that the United States was behind the protests spoke to his base of blue-collar workers, farmers and state employees, who are suspicious of Western intentions after years of state propaganda.
"Putin is a brave and persistent man who can resist the U.S. and EU pressure," said Anastasia Lushnikova, a 20-year-old student who voted for Putin in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don.
Putin played the same polarizing tune on Sunday, thanking the workers at a tank factory in Nizhny Tagil for their support, saying that "a man of labor is a head above any loafer or windbag."
He made generous social promises during his campaign and initiated limited political reforms to try to assuage public anger. His spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Sunday that Putin will push ahead with the reforms, but he firmly ruled out any "Gorbachev-style liberal spasms."
Putin had promised that the vote would be fair, and election officials allowed more observers to monitor the vote. Tens of thousands of Russians, most of them politically active for the first time, volunteered to be election observers, receiving training on how to recognize vote-rigging and record and report violations.
Zyuganov, the Communist candidate, told reporters after the polls closed that he would not recognize the vote, calling it "illegitimate, unfair and non-transparent."
His campaign chief, Ivan Melnikov, claimed that election officials had set up numerous additional polling stations and alleged that hundreds of thousands of voters cast ballots at the ones in Moscow alone.
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.
Oksana Dmitriyeva, a parliamentary deputy from Mironov's party, tweeted that they saw "numerous cases of observers being expelled from polling stations" across St. Petersburg just before the vote count.
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.
It was unclear to what extent the cameras were effective. The election observation mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe noted skepticism in a report on election preparations.
The OSCE, which fielded about 220 observers, was to present its findings on Monday.
Unlike Moscow and other big cities, where independent observers showed up en masse, in Russia's North Caucasus and other regions election officials were largely left to their own devices. These regions have seen some of the worst vote rigging in the past.
A web camera at a polling station in Dagestan, a Caucasus province near Chechnya, registered unidentified people tossing ballot after ballot into boxes. The Central Election Commission quickly responded to the video, which was posted on the Internet, saying the results from the station will be invalidated.
The police presence was heavy throughout Moscow and other Russian cities Sunday. There were no immediate reports of trouble, although police arrested three young women who stripped to the waist at the polling station where Putin cast his ballot; one of them had the word "thief" written on her bare body.
In Dagestan, where attacks by Islamic militants occur on daily basis, gunmen raided a polling station, killing three police officers. One of the assailants was also killed, according to police.
Associated Press writers Jim Heintz, Maria Danilova, Nataliya Vasilyeva, Mansur Mirovalev, Peter Leonard and Sofia Javed in Moscow and Sergei Venyavsky in Rostov-on-Don contributed to this report.