Russian Voters Turn Out for Putin and United Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin waits to cast his vote at a Moscow polling station. (By Alexei Boitsov -- Bloomberg News)
By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 3, 2007

MOSCOW, Dec. 2 -- President Vladimir Putin secured a convincing personal victory in Russia's parliamentary election Sunday and with it, his allies say, the "moral authority" he had demanded to maintain political influence in the country after he steps down next year.

The pro-Kremlin United Russia party, whose ticket was headed by Putin, won more than 60 percent of the vote, according to exit polls and early returns.

Three other parties, two of them firmly in the Kremlin's pocket, received enough votes to cross the 7 percent threshold necessary to win seats in the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament.

Opposition leaders called foul on a result they said followed a campaign discredited by the authorities' strong-arm tactics and by excessive bias in the mass media, particularly on the state-controlled television channels, the source of news for most Russians.

Independent observers, including European lawmakers, will offer their verdicts on the election Monday, but United Russia immediately began to trumpet its victory.

"Our result shows that voters gave their support not only to United Russia, but also to the course set by Vladimir Putin," Boris Gryzlov, speaker of the outgoing Duma and the head of United Russia, said on Russian television. "The elections were a referendum on Putin, and we can say he has won the first round."

Although 60 percent represents a major victory, it was still less than some in United Russia had expected and may leave the party with only marginally more seats in the next 450-seat parliament, according to early projections. But that would still be enough to change the constitution at will.

Seven parties failed to make the cutoff, and their percentage of the vote will be shared by the four winning parties in the final distribution of seats.

Putin is not a member of United Russia, but he allowed the party to place him at the head of its electoral list. That decision transformed the vote into a plebiscite on his desire to wield influence over not just the next parliament but the next president.

The presidential election will be held March 2, and the candidate Putin endorses is expected to sweep to victory. But the winner's power is likely to be constrained by Putin's enduring influence. Putin is constitutionally barred from serving three consecutive terms, but he could return in 2012, or sooner if the next president were to resign early. He has not said what role he will assume next year or whether he will seek to return to the presidency.

The Communist Party came in second Sunday with about 11 percent of the vote, but party officials expressed dismay at the conduct of the campaign.

"These are the dirtiest, most irresponsible elections," party leader Gennady Zyuganov said after voting in Moscow. "They have thought up at least 15 ways to entrap and betray voters."

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