MOSCOW (Reuters) -Russia’s ruling United Russia party was on course to secure a comfortable victory in a three-day parliamentary election despite losing some ground to its opponents, early results and an exit poll showed on Sunday.
With nearly 13% of ballots counted, the Central Election Commission said United Russia had won just over 40% of the vote.
Separately, an exit poll conducted by INSOMAR and published by Russia’s RIA news agency predicted United Russia would win a little over 45% of the vote.
Though that would amount to an emphatic win, it would be a weaker result than the last time a parliamentary election was held in 2016, when the party won just over 54% of the vote.
The ruling party has faced a slump in its popularity due to malaise over years of faltering living standards and was also contending with a tactical voting campaign organised by allies of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.
Initial results showed the Communist Party finishing in second place with around 24% of the vote, followed by the nationalist LDPR party with around 9%. Both parties usually back the Kremlin on key issues.
Kremlin critics say the vote is a sham, given a pre-election crackdown which outlawed Navalny’s movement, barred his allies from running, and targeted critical media and non-governmental organisations which the authorities regarded as hostile.
However, United Russia’s expected win is likely to be used by the Kremlin as proof of widespread support for Putin, who has been in power as either president or prime minister since 1999.
Allies of Navalny, who is serving a jail sentence for parole violations he denies, had encouraged tactical voting against United Russia, a scheme that amounts to supporting the candidate most likely to defeat the ruling party in a given electoral district. Authorities tried to block the initiative online.
Golos, an independent election watchdog, said it had recorded many violations during the vote, including threats against observers and ballot stuffing, blatant examples of which circulated on social media, with some individuals caught on camera depositing bundles of voting slips in urns.
The Central Election Commission said it had recorded cases of ballet stuffing in eight regions and that the results from those polling stations would be voided.
United Russia held nearly three quarters of the outgoing State Duma’s 450 seats. That dominance last year helped the Kremlin pass constitutional reforms that allow Putin to run for two more terms as president after 2024, potentially staying in power until 2036.
Navalny’s allies were barred from running in the election after his movement was banned in June as extremist. Other opposition figures allege they were targeted with dirty tricks campaigns.
The Kremlin denies a politically-driven crackdown and says individuals are prosecuted for breaking the law. Both it and United Russia denied any role in the registration process for candidates.
Google, Apple and Telegram messenger limited some access to the tactical voting campaign, leading activists to accuse them of caving to government pressure. Apple and Google have not responded to the allegation.
“One day we will live in a Russia where it will be possible to vote for good candidates with different political platforms,” Navalny ally Leonid Volkov wrote on Telegram messenger before polls closed on Sunday.
Putin, who turns 69 next month, has not said whether he will run again for the presidency in the 2024 election.
One Moscow pensioner who gave his name only as Anatoly said he voted United Russia because he was proud of Putin’s efforts to restore what he sees as Russia’s rightful great power status.
“Countries like the United States and Britain more or less respect us now like they respected the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 70s… The Anglo-Saxons only understand the language of force,” he said.
Other voters voiced anger at United Russia at a polling station in Moscow, where the party has fared worse in recent years than in other regions.
“I’m always against United Russia,” said Roman Malakhov, who voted Communist. “They haven’t done anything good.”
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