Putin majority cut despite 'slanted' polls
Russian strongman Vladimir Putin on Monday suffered the worst election setback of his career as the majority of his ruling party was scythed back in polls marred by claims of serial violations.
Despite the failure of ruling United Russia to win even half the vote, monitors said the polls had been slanted in its favour and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said there were "serious concerns".
While United Russia has managed to keep a much-reduced absolute majority, it appears Putin's once invincible popularity is on the wane ahead of his planned return to the Kremlin in 2012.
United Russia obtained 238 seats in the 450-seat State Duma in Sunday's polls, down sharply from the 315 seats it won in the last polls in 2007, election commission chief Vladimir Churov told reporters.
"The word 'Putin' has lost its magic force," concluded analyst Yury Korgunyuk of the INDEM research institute. "These elections brought him nothing good."
This was the first time that Putin or his party had endured a decline in support in an election. United Russia has also lost the majority of two-thirds required to pass any changes to the constitution. The party only managed to win 49.35 percent of the vote, down sharply from over 64 percent in 2007.
However the opposition protested that United Russia's results would have been even worse in clean polls and the West joined Russian activists in raising alarm about mass cyber attacks on websites and persecution of monitors.
"The contest was slanted in favour of the ruling party," said monitors led by the OSCE, adding there had been "frequent procedural violations" including indications of ballot stuffing.
Clinton said that there should be a "full investigation of all credible reports of electoral fraud and manipulation" and there "were serious concerns about the conduct of the elections".
"We are also concerned by reports that independent Russian election observers ... were harassed and had cyber attacks on their websites," she said.
A string of news websites that show sympathy for the opposition were paralysed on election day on Sunday, including Moscow Echo radio, the Kommersant newspaper and The New Times magazine in an apparent mass cyber attack.
The website of the independent monitor group Golos, which exposed a string of violations in the campaign, was also down after a week of harassing of its leaders by the authorities.
United Russia's biggest opposition will be the Communist Party with 92 seats. It was followed by the A Just Russia party with 64 seats and the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party with 56 mandates. Turnout was just over 60 percent.
Putin sought to put a brave face on the result, saying United Russia's seat share would allow it to "work calmly and rhythmically, ensuring stability" in the new parliament.
United Russia's poor showing came after Putin announced in September he planned to reclaim his old Kremlin job in March presidential polls, despite signs Russians may be growing disillusioned with his 11-year rule.
Medvedev is set to step aside and become prime minister, in a job swap that the two men hope will determine Russia's political future and stability for years to come.
The four years since the last parliamentary election have been marked by an outburst of criticism of the authorities on the Internet as web penetration of Russia started to finally catch up with the rest of Europe.
Putin was recently subjected to unprecedented booing when he made an appearance at a martial arts fight and opinion polls have shown an erosion in his once impregnable popularity.
Yet United Russia remains by far the largest party and the three so-called opposition parties in the Duma have an undistinguished track record of following the Kremlin line when required.
United Russia's popularity ratings varied wildly across Russia's 83 regions, polling barely over 33 percent on the Pacific region around the city of Vladivostok and less than 30 percent in the Yaroslavl region north of Moscow.
"Who could have thought three days ago that, even with a distorted result, (United Russia) would poll less than 50 percent," wrote top anti-corruption blogger and anti-Kremlin activist Alexei Navalny.
But the mainly Muslim regions of the Northern Caucasus -- run by strongmen leaders in the face of an Islamist insurgency -- again posted credibility-busting shows of support for United Russia.
The conflict-plagued Dagestan region voted over 91 percent for the ruling party, while in neighbouring Chechnya where Russia waged two wars in the past 15 years, United Russia polled an astonishing 99.50 percent of votes.
© 2011 AFP