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Putin's party ekes out majority in controversial Russia election

A slim -- and messy -- victory for the United Russia party in Sunday's elections foreshadows troubles for Vladimir Putin's coming bid for the presidency.

By Correspondent / December 5, 2011

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Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's United Russia Party has suffered a drop in popularity during his campaign to become president.

Ufa, Russia

Vladimir Putin's United Russia party appears to have eked out a 50 percent win in Sunday's elections for the State Duma, which puts it on track to dominate Russia's lower house of parliament for the next five years.

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But United Russia (UR), which held a commanding two-thirds majority in the outgoing Duma, has been severely chastened by legions of voters who turned against it despite its near total domination of the media, vast access to official resources, and alleged campaigns of harassment that kept even permitted opposition parties from competing fully. It also faces an unprecedented storm of complaints from oppositionists around the country, especially widespread accusations of vote-rigging in the frenzied hours of Sunday night aimed at bringing UR's totals up to the crucial 50 percent mark.

Analysts say the ruling party's loss of prestige and credibility in this election could change the political atmosphere in Russia and cast a dark shadow over Mr. Putin's coming run for president on the UR ticket, in polls slated for March.

"For Putin these results are a loud and clear alarm bell," says Sergei Strokan, a columnist with the Moscow business daily Kommersant. "He is a clever man, and I suppose he understands that UR's popular base is fading away just when he needs it to launch his presidential campaign in a few weeks. He has also been put on notice that discontent is running deeply in Russian society."

The preliminary report (pdf) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which fielded 160 observers -- the biggest Western delegation -- found that Sunday's vote counting "was characterized by frequent procedural violations and instances of apparent manipulation, including several serious indications of ballot box stuffing."

One key example of that allegedly took place here in Bashkortistan, an ethnic republic in the Urals some 1,000 miles east of Moscow, where opposition leaders are up in arms over what they claim were "massive manipulations" of vote tallies in the republic's central election headquarters in the early hours of Monday morning.

Rifgat Gordanov, leader of the Bashkortistan branch of the Communist Party, claims that his party's observer tallies, exit polls, and the first wave of returns Sunday night all agreed that the Communists had won about 21 percent of the votes in the republic, while United Russia had about 46 percent.

"Then, suddenly, on Monday morning we were informed that our final vote was just 15.6 percent, and United Russia had leapt to a total of 70.6 percent," Mr. Gordanov says. "This is a complete fraud. Our observers were everywhere, they saw what was happening, but in many places they were denied copies of the protocols [the polling station document that certifies the raw vote count]. There were unbelievable violations of the rules."

But Andrei Nazarov, chief of UR's Bashkortistan election headquarters, insists that everything was above board.

"Turnout in Bashkortistan was 79 percent, with 70 percent of voters supporting United Russia, that's confirmed," he says. "That's one of the best results in Russia, and it's evidence that our party has been serving the people well, while the other parties have done little.... There is no evidence that violations took place. These are just empty claims by a few people."

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