Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visits a science and technology...

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visits a science and technology exhibit in Novosibirsk, 1,750 miles east of Moscow, during his presidential campaign (Feb. 17, 2012) Credit: AP

Before Sunday's Russian elections, Vladimir Putin's supporters were saying that 60 percent of the vote, well above the 50 percent that would have required a runoff, would constitute a mandate for the new president's third term.

Imagine the surprise of election watchers when the final margin turned out to be 63 percent, just enough to exceed expectations but not enough to fuel well-justified suspicions that the election was rigged from the outset.

The prime minister's most serious credible opponent, reformer Grigory Yavlinsky, was barred from the ballot. Yavlinsky might not have won even in an honest election, but he would likely have done well enough to alarm the Kremlin and build a following.

Instead, the Kremlin put up four handpicked stiffs as opponents. The best-known, communist perennial Gennady Zyuganov, got 15 percent; the other three were all in the single digits.

To ensure the outcome, the Kremlin resorted to a vote fraud so crude it would make a Chicago alderman blush -- "carousel voting." The Associated Press cited Russian observers as saying Putin supporters were bused in to Moscow and other big cities from elsewhere and taken from one polling place to another to vote multiple times.

One Internet wag said it showed Putin's commitment to the concept of one man, two votes -- although five or six votes might be more like it. The Wall Street Journal cited a poll that says 35 percent of Russians think the elections are illegitimate and 40 percent distrust the government, a figure surely on the low side. If the election had been honest and confined to Moscow, where three months of nonstop protests led up to the election, Putin might have gotten less than 20 percent of the vote.

Outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev will return to his previous role as prime minister. Medvedev and Putin exchanged jobs so Putin could comply with the Russian Constitution's limit of two consecutive terms. The president's term, meanwhile, was extended from four to six years.

So even though he is secure in a six-year term, and hinting at running for another, Putin is, in a sense, on probation with the Russian people. There is a growing backlash against officially sanctioned corruption and the numerous overweening perks of Kremlin favorites.

During the campaign, Putin made promises to voters that would total more than $160 billion, money the Kremlin doesn't have. Analysts say that oil, the mainstay of the resource-dependent Russian economy, would have to rise above $150 a barrel for the Kremlin to make good on these promises. Oil is currently just over $106 a barrel.

Putin might surprise his critics. A key test will be three measures before the parliament: one restoring the direct election of governors, another eliminating at least some restrictions on political parties, and a third giving the opposition access to state-controlled broadcast media.

Dale McFeatters is a senior writer for the Scripps Howard News Service.