REPORTING FROM MOSCOW -- Russia’s ruling party appeared to have lost significant support among voters and was at risk of seeing its commanding majority in the lower house of parliament evaporate, according to exit polls and initial ballot counts in elections held Sunday.
With 51% of the ballots counted, the United Russia Party of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev was leading its rivals with about 49% of the vote, far below the 64% it won in 2007 parliamentary elections. The Communist Party trailed with almost 20% of the vote, followed by the Just Russia and nationalist Liberal Democratic parties, each with just under 13%.
Exit polls cited by Russian television also suggested that United Russia would receive less than 50% of the vote.
If the voting totals hold up, the results would be a stinging defeat for Putin, who has announced plans to run for president in elections 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 hand-picked successor.
United Russia held a 315-seat majority in the 450-member State Duma, or lower house, going into Sunday’s election. Even if the party does not gain 50% of the vote in Sunday’s election, it still might be able to 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 election results.
United Russia’s showing in the polls reflects “the results of real democracy,” said Medvedev. “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, in turn, 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 suggestion that United Russia would not have garnered even as many votes as it had with 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 after the monitoring organization published a map it said showed thousands of violations of campaign regulations by officials and bureaucrats, most committed by the ruling party.
Several popular websites and Internet portals that published the map, including those of Echo of Moscow radio station and the New Times magazine, were attacked by unknown hackers Sunday morning. The Echo of Moscow website was inaccessible until evening.
-- Sergei L. Loiko
Photo: An election official, center, carries a ballot box to voters unable to reach the polling station in the village of Arzinka, about 300 miles east of Moscow. Credit: Pavel Golovkin / Associated Press