A voter casts a ballot in Russia's parliamentary elections at a downtown… (Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Moscow — Russia's ruling party appeared to have lost significant support among voters and was barely winning a majority in the lower house of parliament, according to exit polls and preliminary ballot counts in elections held Sunday.
With 85% of the ballots counted, the United Russia party of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev was leading its rivals with about 50% of the vote, far below the 64% it won in 2007. The Communist Party trailed with almost 20% of the vote, followed by Just Russia, with about 13%, and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, with about 12%.
If the totals hold up, the results will be a stinging defeat for Putin, who has announced plans to run for president early next year. He held the post for two terms ending in 2008, when election laws forced him to step aside in favor of Medvedev, his handpicked successor.
United Russia held a 315-seat majority in the 450-member State Duma going into Sunday's election. Even if the party does not gain 50% of the vote, it might still hold on to majority control under Russia's electoral system.
Both Putin and Medvedev appeared at United Russia headquarters late Sunday and sought to put the best face on the results.
United Russia's showing reflects "the results of real democracy," Medvedev said. "The party fared in a dignified way in accordance with its political influence. And the situation that we get in the State Duma reflects the real situation of political forces in the country."
Putin declared, "Despite all the difficulties and the responsibility … on the party's shoulders, our voters, our citizens, have preserved its strength as the leading political party."
Some independent observers suggested that United Russia would not have garnered even the number of votes it did without election irregularities.
"We know already of several thousand documented and proven cases of campaign violations and gross abuse of administrative resource on all levels in favor of United Russia," said Grigory Melkonyan, deputy leader of Golos, a private group that monitors campaign irregularities and violations.
"Regional and local officials all across the country apply pressure on companies and labor collectives, whose managers in their turn promise perks and bonuses to those who vote for the ruling party, demanding that they produce a photo of the ballot paper filled in the correct way, or simply threaten that they have a way to find out how their subordinates vote," Melkonyan said.
Last week Vladimir Churov, the Central Election Commission chief and a staunch Putin ally, filed a complaint with the prosecutor general's office accusing Golos of meddling in the campaign and agitating against United Russia after the monitoring organization published a map it said showed thousands of campaign violations by officials and bureaucrats, mostly from the ruling party.
Several popular websites and Internet portals, including those of Echo of Moscow radio station and the New Times magazine, which published the Golos map, were hit by hackers Sunday morning.
Yuri Gudkov, a lawmaker and member of Just Russia, a former ally and currently a bitter opponent of United Russia, accused the Kremlin of vote fraud and ballot stuffing.
"Today we caught red-handed a deputy head of a Moscow polling station in an attempt to stuff 42 ballot papers all marked in favor of United Russia," he said. "At another station we discovered a whole ballot box filled with pro-United Russia ballots ahead of the voting."
At a downtown Moscow polling station, Lidia Sinyavskaya, sporting a navy blue jacket with a United Russia observer badge on its lapel, was shaking her head in disbelief as several dozen young men with crew cuts and civilian clothes filed in for ballot papers.
"I may be betraying my party but this is totally outrageous!" she said. "There are more than 200 students of the Border Troops Academy here and all their names are in the main ballot list as regular residents of the district, which is a gross violation!
"They should all be in a special list and should all have special vote-away tickets, which they apparently don't have," she added. "No wonder they will vote the way they are ordered for the party that I represent."
Though the border troop cadets at Polling Station 227 refused to say which party they voted for, others were not so taciturn.
"All the radical and real opposition parties are barred from this election and there is really not much choice here," Yuri Skovorodnikov, a 60-year-old painter, said. "I came here to vote only to prevent United Russia from stealing my voice and voted for the most decent party on the list, Yabloko" — the only liberal opposition party on the ballot.
"I voted for the Liberal Democratic Party [a nationalist group] because United Russia is more and more usurping power, and the way we are going here we will soon live under a dictatorship again," said Alexander Perepada, a 42-year-old colonel with the Federal Security Service, formerly the KGB.