Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s party suffered a sharp drop in support in Sunday's parliamentary elections, winning nearly half of the vote but falling far short of the majority it has enjoyed for years, early results showed.
With the votes from about 94 percent of polling stations counted, the ruling United Russia party is now slightly below the 50-percent mark with 49.69 percent, a far cry from the commanding two-thirds constitutional majority the party has held in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, for the past four years, according to the official count.
Throughout the night, United Russia's vote count hovered around the 50 percent mark.
That would be good enough to retain a narrow majority of Duma seats, including United Russia's pro rata share of votes cast for parties that did not pass the 7-percent threshold. But the result still marks a major electoral setback for the political party that Putin leads and that has been the dominant political organization in Russia for much of the past decade.
The Communist Party (KPRF) so far has 19.15 percent, the moderate A Just Russia got 13.17 percent and the nationalist Liberal Democrats (LDPR), 11.66 percent, according to preliminary results. Voter turnout was about 60 percent.
The three other parties failed to clear either the 7-percent election threshold required for full-fledged representation in the Duma or the 5-percent threshold that would give them a token representation. The closest candidate, the liberal Yabloko party, garnered just 3.22 percent.
Patriots of Russia and Right Cause are even further behind, with 0.96 and 0.59 percent respectively.
Putin, 59, who last month accepted United Russia’s nomination as the party’s candidate in presidential elections scheduled for next March, appeared at party campaign headquarters after early results were announced and described the vote as an “optimal” outcome.
Standing alongside President Dmitry Medvedev, his hand-picked successor when he left the Kremlin in 2008 after two terms as president, Putin told supporters that the results of Sunday’s voting “really reflect the situation in the country.”
He said the Duma election would pave the way for “steady development of Russia” in the years ahead.
Both Putin and Medvedev appeared intent on emphasizing the legitimacy of the election and the balance of political forces it would yield in the next Duma, with Medvedev saying that United Russia had run a convincing campaign and even a 50-percent result “testifies to real democracy.”
Medvedev acknowledged, however, that United Russia, long able to impose its will on the national legislature with or without the support of other political parties, “will have to join coalition bloc agreements” in order to get its legislation through the Duma.
“This is normal, that is what parliamentarianism is,” Medvedev said. “That is democracy, and our colleagues and leaders of the relevant fractions said that they were ready for that.”
United Russia, however, showed poorer results in the Khabarovsk and Krasnoyarsk Territories, gaining less than 40 percent.
The elections were punctuated by thousands of claims of violations both from independent observers and the government, with the Interior Ministry alone announcing it had received and would investigate more than 1,000 complaints of irregularities.
Some 1 percent of election protocols from polling places Sunday’s vote have been declared invalid, the Central Election Commission (CEC) said.
Election day was also marked by what appeared to be concerted DDoS hacker attacks that temporarily took down a number of websites that had published reports of elections violations including those of media, popular blogs and independent election observers.
Yabloko and Right Cause said they will contest the election results.
Near-complete official results were due to be announced Monday at 10:00 a.m. Moscow time (06:00 GMT), by which time 99 percent of the ballots will have been counted, the election commission said.
Sunday’s vote was considered an important test for Putin ahead of the presidential election next March and analysts said the reduced support for United Russia increased the likelihood that Putin, who remains the most popular politician in Russia, may not win outright in the first round.
“It will depend upon whom other parties nominate and how well they campaign,” political analyst Yevgeny Minchenko said.
He added, however, that the mitigated outcome for United Russia would force the party accustomed to passing legislation without regard for support from others to negotiate and cooperate with competing political parties.
“By all means, this is good for the development of political culture in Russia,” Minchenko said.