Pro-Putin party holds big lead in Russian elections

The biggest pro-Kremlin party pulled far ahead of its rivals in Russia’s parliamentary elections today, with partial preliminary results suggesting President Vladimir Putin can tighten his grip over the Duma ahead of his own likely re-election bid.

The biggest pro-Kremlin party pulled far ahead of its rivals in Russia’s parliamentary elections today, with partial preliminary results suggesting President Vladimir Putin can tighten his grip over the Duma ahead of his own likely re-election bid.

With 76.62% of the vote counted, United Russia – a party led by Cabinet ministers and packed with government bureaucrats – was ahead by 36.7%, almost three times more than its closest contender.

Two exit polls also indicated Putin’s allies would beat out their rivals by a wide margin.

The Communist Party, universally considered United Russia’s chief contender, climbed to second place, but continued to face a solid challenge from the flamboyant nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, or LDPR. The Communists forged ahead of LDPR with 12.9% of the vote, while LDP saw its support drop to 12.1% as more votes were counted.

Russia’s two main liberal parties, Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces, known by its Russian acronym SPS, were still below the minimum necessary to enter the parliament as parties.

Turnout for the vote appeared lower than past elections, with many Russians disillusioned and uninspired by the generally lacklustre campaign. Two hours before polls closed, turnout was 47.6%, significantly lower than the 53.9% recorded at the same time during the last Duma vote, in 1999.

More might in the 450-seat State Duma, Russia’s lower parliament house, would make it easier for Putin to push through the sometimes-unpopular market-oriented economic reforms he has promised and cut the bureaucracy that stifles Russian growth. It would also give Putin an even stronger hand as he heads into what seems sure to be a second term after the presidential ballot next March.

“The United Russia party has won, the president has won. That means that democratic reforms in Russia will continue. This is a serious victory we can rightly be proud of,” said Lyubov Sliska, a top figure in United Russia.

Kremlin critics, however, fear too much power for Putin could prompt a drift closer to authoritarianism.

Analysts said United Russia and its allies were angling for a two-thirds majority required to make constitutional changes – a lever they could use to extend Putin’s term or let him run for a third term, provided the pliant upper parliament house, Russia’s regional legislatures and the president himself approve.

The surprisingly strong showing by LDPR might also help the Kremlin. In the outgoing Duma, the LDPR almost always voted the Kremlin line despite Zhirinovsky’s fiery statements and populist politicking.

Security was tightened across much of the country after the suicide bombing on Friday that killed 42 people on a commuter train near Chechnya. Putin called the attack an attempt to destabilise the country ahead of the election.

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