Russian parliament meets despite claims of fraud, rallies

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Russia's lower house of parliament dominated by Vladimir Putin's ruling party was set to open its first session on Wednesday despite mass protests sparked by opposition claims of widespread poll fraud.

The first session of the newly elected State Duma comes despite widespread calls by the opposition to cancel the results of the ballot and organise a new vote after observers said the December 4 parliamentary polls were slanted in favour of the ruling party.

Claims of vote fraud brought tens of thousands out into the streets across Russia earlier this month in the largest show of public anger since the turbulent 1990s.

A motley coalition of opposition activists, encouraged by that success, is seeking to drum up support for a new rally to protest the victory of Putin's United Russia on Saturday.

The State Duma, where the ruling party obtained 238 out of 450 seats, is widely expected to approve the candidacy of Sergei Naryshkin, the mild-mannered former chief of Kremlin staff, as the new speaker.

Its previous speaker, the dour-faced United Russia party chairman Boris Gryzlov, had served two parliament terms since 2003 and quit the post earlier this month as the Kremlin scrambled to respond to the mass protests.

"Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin have been invited to attend the State Duma's first session," United Russia said.

"The leaders have not so far confirmed their attendance but parliament members and Duma staff nevertheless hope they'll arrive."

Seeking to highlight the principle of continuity of parliamentary rule, United Russia said that previous Duma speakers Ivan Rybkin and Gennady Seleznyov as well as Gryzlov would attend the opening session.

Putin, who is struggling with the worst legitimacy crisis of his 12-year rule, seeks to win back his old Kremlin job in March presidential elections.

The most recent polls showed his popularity has taken such a dive that he will not be able to secure victory in the first round.

© 2011 AFP

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