MOSCOW (AP) -- Russia's presidential election was tainted Sunday by unprecedented pressure on voters to turn out and incidents of suspected ballot box stuffing — a barely democratic exercise that will grant Vladimir Putin another six years of power.
His critics have called the election a farce and urged voters to boycott, but millions of Russians hail the 65-year-old former KGB officer for defending their proud nation from a hostile outside world.
Putin is facing seven challengers on the ballot but the outcome of the vote is pre-ordained, given his high popularity ratings. The major goal for Russian authorities is producing a big turnout that will hand Putin the legitimacy he craves and provide a convincing mandate for his fourth term.
Sunday's election is expected to further embolden the Russian president both at home and in world affairs. It could also strengthen his hand if he decides to extend his rule beyond 2024 by abolishing term limits — like neighboring China has just done — or by shifting into another position of power.
Casting his ballot in Moscow, Putin was confident of victory, saying he would consider any percentage of votes a success.
"The program that I propose for the country is the right one," he declared.
Given the lack of real competition, authorities are struggling against voter apathy — and have put many of Russia's nearly 111 million voters under intense pressure to cast ballots.
Yevgeny, a 43-year-old mechanic voting in central Moscow, said he briefly wondered whether it was worth voting.
"But the answer was easy ... if I want to keep working, I vote," he said. He said his bosses haven't asked for proof of voting but he fears they will. He spoke on condition that his last name not be used out of concern that his employer — the Moscow city government — would find out.
Across the country in the city of Yekaterinburg, a doctor also said she was being coerced to vote.
When she hadn't voted by midday, "The chief of my unit called me and said I was the only one who hadn't voted," said the doctor, Yekaterina, who spoke on condition her last name not be used because she fears repercussions.
Yevgeny Roizman, the mayor of Yekaterinburg, told The Associated Press that local officials and state employees have all received orders "from higher up" to make sure the presidential vote turnout is over 60 percent.
In Moscow, first-time voters were being given free tickets for pop concerts, and health authorities were offering free cancer screenings at selected polling stations.
Voters cast ballots from the Pacific coast to Siberia and Moscow. Voting concludes at 8 p.m. (1800 GMT; 2 p.m. EDT) in Kaliningrad, the Baltic exclave that is Russia's westernmost region and initial results are expected shortly afterward.
Voters appeared to be turning in out in larger numbers Sunday than in Russia's last presidential election in 2012, when Putin faced a serious opposition movement and violations like multiple voting, ballot stuffing and coercion marred the voting. Voting fraud was widespread in Russia's 2011 parliamentary vote, triggering massive protests in Moscow against Putin's rule.
Election authorities said turnout nationwide Sunday was about 52 percent at 5 p.m. Moscow time.
Some 145,000 observers were monitoring the voting in the world's largest country, including 1,500 foreigners and representatives from opposition leader Alexei Navalny's movement, and they and ordinary Russians reported hundreds of voting problems.
Some examples: ballot boxes being stuffed with extra ballots in multiple regions; an election official assaulting an observer; CCTV cameras obscured by flags or nets from watching ballot boxes; discrepancies in ballot numbers; last-minute voter registration changes likely designed to boost turnout and a huge pro-Putin board inside one polling station.
Russian election officials moved quickly to respond to some of the violations. They suspended the chief of a polling station near Moscow where a ballot stuffing incident was reported and sealed the ballot box. A man accused of tossing multiple ballots into a box in the far eastern town of Artyom was arrested.
Speaking from his Moscow headquarters, Navalny dismissed Putin's challengers on the ballot as "puppets," urged Russian voters to boycott the presidential election as he was doing and vowed to continue defying the Kremlin with street protests.
Russian authorities had appealed to patriotic feelings by holding Sunday's election on the anniversary of Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.
That insulted the Ukrainian government, which refused to let ordinary Russians vote, drawing angry protests from Russian officials. Ukraine security forces blocked the Russian Embassy in Kiev and consulates elsewhere Sunday as the government protested the voting in Crimea, whose annexation is still not internationally recognized.
Ukrainian leaders are also angry over Russian support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, where fighting has killed at least 10,000 people since 2014.
Polls show that most Russians view the takeover of the Black Sea peninsula as a major achievement despite subsequent Western sanctions. Putin also revved up his popularity by taking on Islamic State extremists in Syria.
"Who am I voting for? Who else?" asked Putin supporter Andrei Borisov, 70, a retired engineer in Moscow. "The others, it's a circus."
He expressed hope that Putin will continue to stand up to the United States and the West and will improve living standards at home.
During the campaign, Putin traveled across Russia pledging to raise wages, spend more on the country's crumbling health care and education and modernize Russia's dilapidated infrastructure.
Presidential challenger Ksenia Sobchak, a 36-year-old TV host, urged Putin's critics to "come together" and vote Sunday instead of boycotting.
Speaking after voting, she said boycotting just makes Putin's support look higher than it is and means ordinary Russians will face an even tougher system in his next term.
Critics think Sobchak has the tacit support of the Kremlin so the election appears more democratic, which she denies. She is the only candidate who has openly criticized Putin.
As U.S. authorities investigate alleged Russian interference in the country's 2016 presidential election, Moscow has warned of possible U.S. meddling in the Russian vote.
And sure enough, the Central Election Commission claimed Sunday it had been the target of a hacking attempt. It said authorities had deterred the denial of service attack coming from 15 unidentified nations but gave few details of how serious it was.