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Russia kicks off presidential election
Updated: 2004-03-14 09:07

Russia's presidential poll was officially launched Saturday when voters in the country's Far East began to cast ballots at 11:00 p.m. Moscow time (2000 GMT) to elect a new president for the next four years.

A total of 95,000 polling stations across 11 time zones in Russia -- from the Far East regions of Chutotka and Kamchatka to the westernmost enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea -- will receive voters from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p. m. local time (between 2000 GMT, March 13 to 1800 GMT, March 14).

Nearly 1.3 million overseas Russians will vote at 353 polling stations set at Russian embassies and consular offices in foreign countries. Among the six candidates, the incumbent President Vladimir Putin is widely predicted to win comfortably in the race.

Recent opinion polls put him at the first place with popularityaround 70 percent while none of the other five candidates -- Sergei Glazyev, Oleg Malyshkin, Sergei Mironov, Irina Khakamada and Nikolai Kharitonov -- getting an approval rating higher than 5percent.

Russian election officials forecast that more than 60 percent of the 109 million eligible voters will take part in the poll, higher than the 50 percent threshold that is necessary to make theelection valid.

Under the election law the winner has to collect over half of the ballots. If no candidate collects that amount, a runoff will be organized 21 days after the first round for the two front-runners.

More than 800 foreign observers, including representatives of Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the ex-Soviet republics in the Commonwealth of Independent States, will closely watch the election process. Three opposition candidates plan to pool forces to monitor voting.

Results are not allowed to be made public until balloting has been concluded across the country. Initial returns are expected tocome out after 9:00 p.m. Moscow time (1800 GMT) Sunday.

Security has been tightened ahead of the poll, especially in large cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg, as well as in the breakaway republic of Chechnya. In Moscow, some 22,000 police officers and interior servicemen have been mobilized to guard the polling stations and ensure social security.

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