Russians began voting on Sunday in Moscow, St. Petersburg and dozens of other European Russian regions to elect a president for the fifth time in the nation’s post-Soviet history.
Five candidates - Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, nationalist Liberal Democratic Party head Vladimir Zhirinovsky, A Just Russia Party leader Sergei Mironov and the only independent, billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov - vie for the Russian presidency in the March 4 vote.
Putin, who was Russia's president from 2000 to 2008 and has been prime minister since then, has led the race but may be forced into a second round if he gets less than 50 percent of the vote in the first.
The winner in the first round will be inaugurated as president in early May and President Dmitry Medvedev, a junior member of the ruling tandem with Putin, will step down.
260,000 Russians, including nearly 82,000 living abroad, had voted early, before the poll date, deputy head of the Central Election Commission, Leonid Ivlev, said.
Russian embassies opened 378 ballot offices in 145 countries on Sunday, where about 1.5 million Russians are expected to vote, according to the commission.
Ivlev said also that nearly 2 million Russians vote Sunday, using absentee ballots.
The first regions of Russia to vote in Sunday’s election were the Kamchatka and Magadan regions, where voting started at midnight Saturday/Sunday Moscow time (20:00 GMT Saturday). It will end after residents of Russia’s westernmost Kaliningrad exclave vote at 9:00 p.m. Moscow time (5:00 p.m. GMT) on Sunday.
Results of the exit polls will be announced after voting is finished, and the first preliminary official results are expected to be made public by midnight Sunday/Monday (20:00 GMT Sunday) or in the early hours on Monday.