(MOSCOW) — Vladimir Putin is headed back to the Kremlin after winning Sunday’s Russian presidential election, according to exit polls released after voting ended.
In an acceptance speech in central Moscow, Putin had tears in his eyes as he thanked supporters.
“We have won an open and honest battle,” he said.
Putin returns to the presidency after four years serving as Russia’s prime minister due to term limits. His protégé Dmitri Medvedev ran in his stead, but Putin was always seen as the man with the power.
Putin faced a weak field of competitors on the ballot. With 71 percent of the ballots counted, he had more than 65 percent of the vote nationwide, well above his nearest competitor, Communist candidate Gennady Zuganov, who is believed to have won 17 percent.
The result meant Putin avoided a potentially embarrassing run-off election — an unthinkable scenario for a leader who won his last election in 2004 with more than 70 percent of the vote and enjoyed stratospheric poll numbers until late last year.
When Putin and Medvedev announced on Sept. 24 that they planned to switch places, their popularity began to decline as voters took exception with their presumption of the election’s outcome.
After Putin’s United Russia party was caught stuffing ballot boxes during December’s parliamentary elections, thousands of Russians took to the streets calling for an end to corruption and for Putin to go. The protests soon swelled and more than 100,000 people demonstrated against him.
Despite Putin’s victory, opposition leaders have vowed to continue the pressure. They have already planned another massive demonstration for Monday evening in central Moscow.
Analysts say Putin will be hard-pressed to rule with impunity as before, because Russian voters have now shown that they are no longer afraid to criticize him in public.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Don Melvin, Joshua Berlinger and Eliott C. McLaughlin, CNN Newswire
Faith Karimi and Steve Almasy, CNN Newswire