Putin party support wanes in Russia vote
Vladimir Putin's ruling party suffered a surprise drop in support Sunday in legislative elections seen as a test of the Russian strongman's popularity ahead of his planned return to the Kremlin.
United Russia was on course to win but with less than half the votes, exit polls and initial results based on around a fifth of the count showed, in an unexpected blow to its supreme dominance of Russian politics.
The decline in its support came after an election marred by allegations the authorities had committed major violations to ensure the party hung on to an overwhelming parliamentary majority.
United Russia won 45.9 percent of the vote, based on over 17 percent of the precincts reporting, the central election commission said. The Communist Party was second with 20.7 percent, the commission added.
The results mark a major reverse from the last parliamentary elections in 2007 when United Russia secured a landslide majority of 64.3 percent and won 315 seats in the 450 seat State Duma.
Standing alongside President Dmitry Medvedev in a live televised address, Putin put a brave face on the results and made no specific mention of the fall in support.
"Based on these results, we will be able to ensure the stable development of our country," Putin said.
Medvedev, for his part, rejected the claims of foul play by the authorities, saying the elections results showed Russian "democracy in action" and reflected voters' true moods.
The ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party was third with 14.3 percent while the populist A Just Russia group had 13.3 percent of the vote, the early results quoted by the election commission said.
It is not yet clear how the results will translate into seats and if United Russia is at risk of losing its overall majority in the Duma.
"The result is not a catastrophe for United Russia," said Yevgeny Volk, analyst with the Yeltsin Foundation. "But it shows that there is a disappointment with the ruling party."
The four parties, all members of the outgoing State Duma lower house of parliament, were the only ones to break through the seven-percent vote barrier necessary for proportionate party representation in the chamber.
Veteran liberal politician Grigory Yavlinsky's Yabloko party trailed in fifth place with 2.6 percent of the vote, the early results showed.
Exit polls all showed United Russia also winning less than 50 percent of the vote. The All-Russian Public Opinion Research Centre (VTsIOM) said United Russia was to win 48.5 percent of the vote, ahead of the Communist Party with 19.8 percent.
The four years since the last parliamentary vote 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 chinks in his once impregnable popularity.
The Russian strongman is standing in March 2012 presidential elections to return to the Kremlin after his four-year stint as prime minister. His protege Medvedev is set to cede the Kremlin and become prime minister.
Opponents said the vote was marred by unprecedented violations as the ruling elite downed websites and harassed monitors to limit dissent.
Independent monitor group Golos (Voice), which claimed rampant violations in the campaign, said its "Map of Violations" website documenting reports of fraud was inaccessible due a cyber-attack and its email was paralysed.
But it still was working via Skype and telephone, noting violations like the failure of the Volga city of Samara to allow observers inside to inspect ballot boxes before polls opened.
The website of popular radio station Moscow Echo, which is owned by state gas monopoly Gazprom but often tackles sensitive issues, was the subject of a similar distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack.
The Communists complained the elections were hit by "mass fraud" that turned them into a "war zone".
A half dozen other news sites that provide an different view of Russia from state media, including that of respected daily Kommersant, were also down during the day apparently for the same reasons.
The marathon election process in the world's largest country kicked off in Pacific Ocean regions and concluded 21 hours later when polls closed in the exclave of Kaliningrad bordering the European Union, nine time zones away.
Results from Russia's regions showed weak performances by United Russia, especially in far-flung areas where resentment about the policies of the authorities in distant Moscow is highest.
United Russia won just 34.5 percent in the Far Eastern Primorye region that includes the port of Vladivostok, despite a massive local spending project by the authorities to host an Asian summit next year.
Police meanwhile detained around 100 protesters including radical opposition leader Eduard Limonov for holding an unsanctioned protest in Moscow, while another 70 were held at a similar event in Saint Petersburg, police in the two cities said.
© 2011 AFP