VLADIMIR Putin declared victory in Russia's presidential election, but his historic win was overshadowed by widespread reports of vote-rigging and ballot fraud.
Addressing a rally outside the Kremlin, Mr Putin had tears rolling down his cheeks as he claimed he had won an "open and honest battle" and secured "clear victory" over his four rivals.
Early results suggested he had won more than 63 per cent of the vote, enough to avoid a run-off against another of the candidates and deliver him an unprecedented third term.
However, he faces mass protests after opposition activists said they had recorded more than 4,000 instances of alleged vote-rigging and malpractice that rendered the contest illegitimate.
They promised to bring tens of thousands of people on to the streets on Monday after claims that the regime had sought to guarantee victory by transporting groups of supporters around multiple polling stations to vote several times over.
However, as he spoke to an estimated crowd of 100,000 outside the Kremlin, Mr Putin, who was flanked by the outgoing president, Dmitry Medvedev, insisted: "We have won in an open and honest battle.
"I promised you we would win, we won. Glory to Russia!"
His voice hoarse with emotion he added: "We showed that no one and nothing can tell us what to do. We were able to save ourselves from political provocations that have just one aim: to overturn the Russian state and usurp power. Such attempts will not succeed on our land. They won't succeed!"
The results of 30 per cent of polling stations showed Mr Putin was on course to win with 63.42 per cent of the vote. The Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov was trailing with 17.25 per cent, and the tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov was third with 7.29 per cent. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a populist candidate, had 7.19 per cent while the former upper house speaker Sergei Mironov polled 3.72 per cent.
While the result negates the need for a second round – only required if no candidate gets more than half the vote – it suggests a weakening of support for Mr Putin, who took 72 per cent when he ran for the presidency in 2004. Mr Zyuganov said the vote was illegitimate and refused to congratulate Mr Putin. "I cannot recognise this vote as honest, fair or worthy," he said.
Ilya Yashin, one of the leaders of a growing opposition movement which has brought tens of thousands of Russians to street protests against the regime, said: "There was a hypothesis that the authorities would this time allow honest elections in Moscow because of the scandal with violations during the Duma elections in December, but this is being disproved. The scale of the falsification we are seeing will destroy the last vestiges of trust between government and the people. Tomorrow we will be on the streets."
Several hundred thousand civilian observers monitored the vote as citizens made their choice at 95,000 stations in regions across 10 time zones.
Mr Putin was expected to win despite being unsettled by mass street protests against his rule. Opposition is concentrated among the urban middle class, but he preserves support among provincial voters who praise him for ensuring stability and higher wages.
However, within hours of polls opening, Twitter and other social media were flooded with reports of fraud and vote rigging. Golos, Russia's leading elections watchdog, said it received numerous reports of "carousel voting," a ploy used during the disputed parliamentary poll in December in which groups of people vote at several different polling stations using the same absentee ballots.
Many reports of falsifications remain unconfirmed, although bloggers posted photographs and videos of groups of people arriving simultaneously at stations to vote.
Vadim Korovin, an opposition activist, claimed he and others had filmed groups of young people meeting outside a McDonald's near Yugo Zapadnaya metro station in southern Moscow and being paid to vote for Mr Putin. "We caught one of them and told the nearest police station but they refused to do anything," he said.
Election monitors had warned that many polling stations had run out of absentee ballots, indicating they might be used in fraud by Mr Putin's supporters, or others. Rosvybory, a coalition of election observers led by Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption blogger who at 35 is the heart-throb of the protest movement, said it had recorded up to 4,000 alleged violations of electoral law during voting by the early evening. More than 150 observers were reported to have been illegally removed by police or election officials from polling stations in Moscow.
The city's election chief, Valentin Gorbunov, denied the reports of carousel voting and said factories were providing transport for their workers to polling stations.
The disparate opposition movement will now hold protests in the capital today. Tens of thousands of people are expected at an opposition rally on Pushkin Square in central Moscow at 7pm.
Mr Putin, 59, voted alongside his wife Lyudmila at a polling station inside the Russian Academy of Sciences. He was president from 2000 until 2008, when he had to give up the post because of a constitutional limit on a consecutive third term. He was replaced by his ally Dmitry Medvedev, who said he had agreed with Mr Putin not to run for a second time.