YEKATERINBURG, Russia - Vladimir Putin sought a convincing victory in Russia's presidential election on Sunday to strengthen his hand in dealing with the biggest opposition protests since he rose to power 12 years ago.
Critics question the legitimacy of a vote they say is skewed to help the former KGB spy return to the Kremlin after four years as prime minister, and are threatening to step up protests that began after a disputed parliamentary poll in December.
Putin's victory was not in doubt as voters cast ballots from Russia's Pacific coast across many sparsely populated swathes of territory to the western borders with the European Union. But he was hoping for an outright victory in the first round which he could portray as a strong mandate for six more years in power.
Early signs were that turnout would be high. Officials said more than 12 percent of voters had cast ballots by 10 a.m Moscow time (1:00 a.m. ET) compared with 8.9 percent at the 2008 election that brought Putin's ally, Dmitry Medvedev, to the Kremlin.
Some voters expressed anger at being offered no real choice in a vote that pits Putin against four weaker candidates - communist Gennady Zyuganov, nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, former parliamentary speaker Sergei Mironov and billionaire metals tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov.
Others said Putin, who has portrayed himself as a man of action, was the tough national leader Russia needed.
"I will of course vote for Putin. Who else is there?," said Mikhail, a university student in Vladivostok, a port city of 600,000 on the Pacific coast.
"I voted for the Soviets," said an aged man dressed in a shabby leather coat who declined to give his name. Asked if that meant Zyuganov, he said: "For Putin. He is raising our pensions, while Zyuganov is only making pledges."
The last opinion polls before the election showed Putin, who was president from 2000 to 2008 before constitutional limits barred a third straight term, would win 59-66 percent of the vote, enough to avoid a second-round runoff.
But a 22-year old student in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg student, declining to give her second name, said she would vote for the "rich and single" Prokhorov.
Pyotr Kirillov, 75, said in Yekaterinburg that he had not changed his ideals in the past 50 years despite the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
"I voted for our party, for Zyuganov," he said.
Others were just indifferent. Yekaterinburg transport worker Alexander, fed up with politics and the lack of choice, said: "All of our family will go to our dacha (country house) today."
Putin, 59, has been lionised by state television and is running against politicians who, with the exception of Prokhorov, have made a habit of losing elections to the Kremlin.
But growing voter fatigue with Putin has unsettled Russia's elite of officials, former spies and billionaire businessmen: Putin's self-portrayal as the anchor of Russian stability hinges on his popularity.
Bloggers have posted allegations of election rigging in and outside Moscow, suggesting groups of voters are being taken to one polling station after another to vote several times for Putin. This trick is known as carousel voting.
"Wow, we were of course expecting carousels, but not on this scale," Alexei Navalny, a 35-year-old anti-corruption blogger and influential figure in the protest movement, wrote on his Twitter account.
Election officials dismissed reports that there were widespread voting irregularities in December's poll, won by Putin's United Russia party.
In an attempt to allay fears of vote rigging, Putin ordered 182,000 web cameras to be installed at 91,000 polling stations to stream footage of ballot boxes and vote-counting onto a web site during the election.
Thousands of opposition activists as well as an international observer mission are also monitoring the polls. Exit polls will be released shortly after voting ends.
Russia's 59-year-old "alpha-dog" leader had to fight a tough campaign after initially misjudging the significance of the biggest protests of his 12 years in power.
The protests were sparked by the disputed Dec. 4 election, but the anger was focused against Putin, who bungled the Sept. 24 announcement of his presidential bid by appearing simply to inform Russians that he would rule for another six years.
Russia's opposition leaders, a fragmented group of activists, journalists and bloggers, are preparing rallies for the day after the vote and say the election is slanted in Putin's favour even without the vote rigging they expect.
Navalny has said Putin's election cannot be legitimate and called for more protests, including tent camps in Moscow.
Reuters and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.