Two major exit polls in Russia indicate a sharp decline in support for the United Russia party, spearheaded by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, as Russians cast their ballots in parliamentary elections Sunday.
The poll for Russian state TV showed about 47 per cent support for United Russia, down from 66 per cent in 2007. That seems to be supported by state pollster VTSIOM, which also gave United Russia the same number, with more than 25 per cent of polls reporting.
That would give Putin's party 220 members in the 450-seat lower house of parliament, down from 315. If this becomes reality, that would rob Putin of the two-thirds majority needed to alter the country's constitution without challenge.
Putting a positive spin on the disappointing returns, Putin said "we can ensure the stable development of the country with this result."
Despite the setback, he was still expected to win the March presidential election and reclaim the position he held from 2000 to 2008. Putin has systematically destroyed any potential challengers. And most Russians do not see any credible alternatives, despite growing dissatisfaction with his strongman style and pervasive official corruption.
Meanwhile, Russia's only independent monitoring group, Golos, logged 5,300 complaints alleging violations of election laws. Rival parties, which have suffered from government crackdowns, alleged significant violations at the polls.
Although Putin and his United Russia party have dominated Russian politics for more than a decade, popular discontent appears to be growing with Putin's strongman style, widespread official corruption and the gap between ordinary Russians and the country's super-rich.
United Russia currently holds a two-thirds majority in the outgoing State Duma. But a survey last month by the independent Levada Center polling agency indicated the party could get only about 53 per cent of the vote in this election.
Putin wants United Russia — which many critics now deride as the "party of crooks and thieves" — to do well in the parliamentary election to help pave the way for his return to the presidency in a vote now three months away. He previously served as president between 2000 and 2008.
He has warned that a parliament with a wide array of parties would lead to political instability and claimed that Western governments want to undermine the election. A Western-funded election-monitoring group has come under strong official pressure and its website was incapacitated by hackers on Sunday.
Only seven parties have been allowed to field candidates for parliament this year, while the most vocal opposition groups have been denied registration and barred from campaigning.
Several parties complained Sunday of extensive election violations aimed at boosting United Russia's vote count, including party observers being hindered in their work.
Communist chief Gennady Zyuganov said his party monitors thwarted an attempt to stuff a ballot box at a Moscow polling station where they found 300 ballots already in the box before the start of the vote.
Red Square protest
A few dozen activists of the Left Front opposition group tried to stage an unsanctioned protest just outside the Red Square in Moscow on Sunday, but were quickly dispersed by police, who detained about a dozen of them.
In the western city of Bryansk, an unidentified assailant threw a firebomb into the window of the local United Russia's office. No one was hurt and the fire was quickly extinguished, according to local police.
He said incidents of ballot-stuffing were reported at several other stations in Moscow, Rostov-on-Don and other areas. In the southern city of Krasnodar, unidentified people posing as Communist monitors had shown up at polling stations and the real observers from the party weren't allowed in, Zyuganov said.
In Vladivostok, voters complained to police that United Russia was offering free food in exchange for promises to vote for the party. In St. Petersburg, an Associated Press photographer saw a United Russia emblem affixed to the curtains on a voting booth.
Golos said that in the Volga River city of Samara observers and election commission members from opposition parties had been barred from verifying that the ballot boxes were properly sealed at all polling stations.
Many violations involve absentee ballots, Golos director Liliya Shibanova said. People with absentee certificates were being bused to cast ballots at multiple polling stations in so-called "cruise voting."
An interim report from an elections-monitoring mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe noted that "most parties have expressed a lack of trust in the fairness of the electoral process."
Pressure on election monitor United Russia's dominance of politics has induced a grudging sense of impotence among many in the country of 143 million. In Vladivostok, voter Artysh Munzuk noted the contrast between the desire to do one's civic duty and the feeling that it doesn't matter.
"It's very important to come to the polling stations and vote, but many say that it's useless," said the 20-year-old university student.
There are around 110 million eligible voters in Russia and turnout in many areas was lower Sunday compared with the previous election. In several far eastern regions and in Siberia turnout varied between 40 to 48 per cent with two hours to go until the polls closed.
The websites of Golos and Ekho Moskvy, a prominent, independent-minded radio station were down on Sunday. Both claimed the failures were due to denial-of-service hacker attacks.
"The attack on the site on election day is obviously connected to attempts to interfere with publication of information about violations," Ekho Moskvy editor Alexey Venediktov said in a Twitter post.
Golos, which is funded by U.S. and European grants, has come under massive official pressure in the past week after Putin accused Western governments of trying to influence the election and likened recipients of Western aid to Judas.