Observer mission says Russian election 'not fair'

International observers denounced the results of Russia's parliamentary elections on Monday, saying the vote that secured an overwhelming victory for President Vladimir Putin's party was "not fair."

International observers denounced the results of Russia's parliamentary elections on Monday, saying the vote that secured an overwhelming victory for President Vladimir Putin's party was "not fair."

With about 98 per cent of the polls counted early Monday, Putin'sUnited Russiapartyhad slightly more than 64 per cent of the vote, with the Communists far behind at 11 per cent.

In a statement, the joint observer team from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe said Sunday's vote"took place in an atmosphere which seriously limited political competition" and was "not alevel political playing field."

"The State Duma election in the Russian Federation … was not fair and failed to meet many OSCE and Council of Europe commitments and standards for democratic elections," said the groups, whichbefore the voteaccused Moscow of using visa delays to stop plans to conduct a larger monitoring operation of the election.

Russian opposition groups laid similar accusations about the election results.

Garry Kasparov, the former chess champion who heads the Other Russia coalition of opposition groups, denounced the vote as "the most unfair and dirtiest in the whole history of modern Russia."

He waswas arrested and jailed for five days for leading a protest rally in Moscow on Nov. 24. His group wasn't allowed to run for parliament.

Europe and the United Statespressed Russia for an inquiry to investigate the allegations of voting abuses.

Putin was quoted by Russian news agencies assaying the election result was "legitimate" anddescribing the victory as a vote of public confidence in him.

"Russians will never allow the country to take a destructive path like happened in some other countries in the ex-Soviet space," Putin said.

But many Russians have said they were pressured to vote and were even given pre-filled ballots voting for United Russia.

The leader of the Communist party is calling the election the dirtiest one in the post-Soviet era, and the United Statesis calling for an investigation into voting irregularities.

Putin could stay on as PM

Thewin forUnited Russiacould pave the way for Putin to stay at the country's helm once his presidential term expires in the spring.

Putin is constitutionally prohibited from running for a third consecutive term as president in March, but in recent months raised the prospect of becoming prime minister.

Hisparty has cast the election as essentially a referendum on Putin's nearly eight years in office. Many of its campaign banners that festoon the capital read "Moscow is voting for Putin."

Two other pro-Kremlin parties— the Liberal Democratic Party and Just Russia— also appeared to have made it into parliament, with8.4 per cent andeight per cent, respectively.

Pollsters said United Russia's performance would give it an overwhelming majority of 306 seats in the 450-seat State Duma, or lower house. The Communists would have 57 seats.

Parties must win at least seven per cent of the vote to claim seats in the Duma, comparedwith five per cent in 2003.

With files from the Associated Press