GROZNY, Russia – The Russian government's choice for president of war-battered Chechnya (search) overwhelmingly won an election that opponents claimed was riddled with fraud, news agencies reported Monday, citing preliminary results.
Although the Kremlin (search) portrayed Sunday's election as a step toward stability, terrorism cast a shadow over balloting with the downing of two Russian airliners five days earlier. Officials said traces of explosives were found in the wreckage.
With 84 percent of the vote counted Monday, Maj. Gen. Alu Alkhanov (search), Chechnya's top police official, had received nearly 75 percent of the votes, news agencies quoted Chechen elections commission head Abdul-Kerim Arsakhanov as saying.
Seven candidates contended to replace the previous Kremlin-backed Chechen president, Akhmad Kadyrov, who was assassinated in May. But Alkhanov was seen as the Kremlin's clear choice and opponents alleged the voting was rigged.
Candidate Abdullah Bugayev said he had formally complained to election officials after seeing several violations, including an Alkhanov campaign worker who ordered people to vote for him at a polling station. A representative of Movsur Khamidov, another candidate, said he found ballot boxes at a polling place stuffed shortly after the station opened.
The election was part of the Kremlin's strategy to try to undermine support for separatist rebels who have been fighting Russian forces for nearly five years by inducing a sense of civil order in the republic.
An election last October based on that strategy brought Kadyrov to power, but he was killed in a bomb blast in Grozny, the Chechen capital, in May. Fighting, violent crime and abductions have continued unabated.
At one polling station in Grozny, a man was killed in an explosion after he approached with a suspicious package. When guards asked to see the package, "He began to run. It blew up. He died," elections commission head Arsakhanov said on Russian NTV television.
No other casualties were reported and the polling station continued to operate, authorities said.
Election officials reported a turnout of around 80 percent, Russian news agencies said. However, little activity was seen at some polling stations.
Police and soldiers were out in force, riding in cars or manning checkpoints. Pedestrians were scarce on Grozny's streets, many of which are lined with war-shattered apartment buildings with collapsed floors and large holes in their facades.
Russian forces have been unable to wipe out Chechen rebels in two wars over the past decade and the Kremlin, refusing to negotiate, has focused on trying to restore civil society in the republic.
However, recent weeks indicate that the separatists remain determined in their fight. On Aug. 21, some 30 people were reported killed in a night of attacks on police stations and patrols in Grozny.
In addition, suspicions have mounted that Chechen fighters or their supporters brought down two Russian airliners that crashed nearly simultaneously on Tuesday. Officials say traces of explosives were found in the wreckage of both planes and that they are investigating two Chechen women who were among the passengers — one aboard each plane.
Alkhanov was the unquestioned favorite among the seven candidates for president and the Kremlin made clear its support for him. He appeared frequently on television newscasts — while the other candidates were seen rarely, if ever — and officials in the Moscow-backed Chechen government barred Alkhanov's only serious challenger from running.
Chechnya's more than 1 million residents live in a largely dysfunctional region. Nearly three-quarters of the population are without work. Electricity and telephone service are largely nonexistent. Tens of thousands of people have fled, mostly to neighboring regions. Hundreds have disappeared in kidnappings blamed on separatist fighters, Russian forces and allied paramilitaries.