Putin’s party crushes opposition at polls

The United Russian win would be a boon for Putin, who must step down as president.

.MOSCOW (AP) – Vladimir Putin’s party won more than 60 percent of the vote with nearly half of precincts counted Sunday in a parliamentary election that could pave the way for him to remain the country’s leader even after he steps down as president.

The vote followed a tense Kremlin campaign that relied on a combination of persuasion and intimidation to ensure victory for Putin’s United Russia party.

With ballots from 47.1 percent of precincts counted, United Russia was leading with 63.2 percent, while the Communists – the only opposition party to win seats – trailed with 11.5 percent, the Central Election Commission said. Exit polls seemed to corroborate the early results.

The Kremlin has portrayed the election as a plebiscite on Putin’s nearly eight years as president – with the promise that a major victory would allow him somehow to remain the country’s leader after his second term ends next year.

Putin is constitutionally prohibited from running for a third consecutive term, but he clearly wants to stay in power. A movement has sprung up in recent weeks to urge him to become a “national leader,” though what duties and powers that would entail are unclear.

“The vote affirmed the main idea: that Vladimir Putin is the national leader, that the people support his course, and this course will continue,” said party leader and parliament speaker Boris Gryzlov said after the exit polls were announced.

Pollsters said United Russia’s performance would give it a crushing majority of 306 seats in the 450-seat State Duma, or lower house. The Communists would have 57 seats.

Two other pro-Kremlin parties – the Liberal Democratic Party and Just Russia – also appeared to have made it into parliament, with 9.6 percent and 7.2, respectively, in the early count.

Under a new election law, a party must receive at least 7 percent of the vote to get any seats – up from the previous 5 percent.

Both opposition liberal parties were shut out, predicted to win no more than 2 percent or 3 percent of the vote each.

The opposition accused the Kremlin of rigging the vote, with Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov calling the election “the most irresponsible and dirty” in the post-Soviet era.

For Russia’s increasingly isolated opposition movement, the election was more evidence of Russia’s drift away from political pluralism and democracy.

“The fact is, they’re not just rigging the vote. They’re raping the democratic system,” said former chess champion and opposition leader Garry Kasparov.

Kasparov, who was jailed for five days after a protest last weekend, spoiled his ballot by writing on it “Other Russia,” the name of his opposition umbrella group.

All seats will be awarded according to the percentage of the vote each party receives; in previous elections, half the seats were chosen among candidates contesting a specific district, allowing a few mavericks to get in. About 109 million people are eligible to vote.

Putin has presided over Russia’s transformation from a poor, chaotic country to a relatively prosperous, stable nation earning $800 million a day in oil and gas revenues.

He has cast the election as a contest between Russian patriots and “foreign-fed jackals” who he claimed would, at the behest of the West, return Russia to the poverty and instability of the 1990s.

He has lashed out at the United States and its allies over the past year, accusing the West of seeking to weaken Russia. And he has challenged Washington’s plans to build a missile defense system in Europe.

The Kremlin’s opposition to the West appeals to many Russians, who suffered economically, physically and emotionally after the Soviet Union’s collapse.

“Today everything is clear and stable in life. The president’s words always coincide with what he does. As for the other candidates we don’t know yet where they would take us to,” said Raisa Tretyakova, a 61-year-old pensioner in St. Petersburg.

Putin has said an election triumph would give him the “moral authority” to hold the government and legislature responsible for implementing his policies after he leaves office. Some analysts say he may seek re-election despite the constitutional ban.

Officials throughout Russia appeared determined to ensure a huge turnout, through pressure, persuasion and even presents. In Chukotka, voters had a chance to win cellular phones. Another Siberian region promised new housing for whichever village shows the most “mature” turnout.

Teachers, doctors and other workers across the country have said they were ordered by their bosses to vote or risked losing their jobs.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, regarded in the West as the most authoritative election monitor, canceled plans to send observers.

Putin claimed the pullout was instigated by the United States to discredit the elections. But the OSCE said Russia delayed granting visas for so long that the organization would have been unable to meaningfully assess election preparations.