Russia ready to hand Putin new term in presidential vote

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian voters are gearing up for a presidential election today that Vladimir Putin is guaranteed to win. They are facing unusually intense pressure to vote, to grant him a convincing new mandate to pursue his nationalist strategy.

Candidates were barred from campaigning Saturday, but the message to voters was clear from billboards celebrating Russian greatness — a big theme of Putin’s leadership — and Kremlin-friendly media coverage.

Putin urged Russians on Friday to “use their right to choose the future for the great Russia that we all love.” He warned that failure to cast a ballot would mean that “this decisive choice will be made without your opinion taken into account.”

While Putin has seven challengers on the ballot, none is a real threat. The last time he faced voters in 2012, he faced a serious opposition movement, but since then he has boosted his popularity thanks to Russian actions in Ukraine and Syria.

More than 1,500 international observers are joining thousands of Russian observers to watch the vote. The government wants to ensure elections are clean after ballot stuffing and fraud marred the last presidential election.

This time the outcome is so certain that authorities are investing in get-out-the-vote efforts to ensure a decent turnout across the world’s biggest country. A strong showing would further embolden Putin domestically and internationally.

A Russian election monitoring group said Saturday it registered an “alarming” rise in recent days in complaints that employers are forcing or pressuring workers to vote.

Grigory Melkonyants, co-chair of the independent Golos center, told The Associated Press on Saturday the group also recorded smaller complaints, such as gimmicks like discounted potatoes for people who vote, or schools holding special performances on election day to lure parents to an onsite voting station.

He said his own group has come under increasing pressure as the elections approach, and warned that independent observers may be targeted by some kind of “attack” on voting day. He didn’t elaborate.

As U.S. authorities investigate alleged Russian interference in President Donald Trump’s election, Moscow has warned of possible meddling in the Russian vote.

Turnout-boosting efforts have been the most visible feature of the campaign — and all come from taxpayers’ pockets.