MOSCOW — Parties aligned with Russian President Vladimir Putin were poised late Sunday evening to win a commanding victory in national parliamentary elections, maintaining the Kremlin’s stranglehold on Russia’s State Duma during a period of budgetary belt-tightening and growing international ambitions.
With just over 30 percent of the ballots counted, United Russia, the ruling party founded by Putin, had taken more than 52 percent of the overall vote, and it was within striking distance of a two-thirds, or constitutional, majority of seats in Russia’s next parliament. Three other political parties will also cross the 5 percent threshold to enter the new parliament. None oppose Putin.
While seeking a new mandate, the Kremlin wanted to make sure that Sunday’s vote was devoid of drama, particularly the images of widespread voter fraud that provoked anti-Putin street protests in the last parliamentary vote in 2011. Journalists and activists did post videos and reports of ballot stuffing Sunday, although it was not clear whether protests would follow.
Critics noted Sunday’s historically low turnout, which officials said was just over 40 percent after polls closed, as a sign of waning support for United Russia, a party whose strongest attribute is its association with Putin.
Nonetheless, Putin said Sunday evening that the party “had achieved a very good result. They have won.”
The results “show that people see that United Russia is really working for the people,” Putin said. “Maybe it doesn’t always works out but they work honestly and work as effectively as possible.”
Under Putin, the parliament has largely come to be seen as a rubber stamp, nearly unanimously passing legislation to limit public demonstrations, ban foreign adoptions, and increase surveillance of Russian citizens and religious groups under a counterterrorism law passed in June. The other parties returning to the State Duma are the Communist Party, the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party and the left-leaning A Just Russia party.
A troubled economy and a budget hit by falling oil prices, which have prevented the indexation of pensions and has delayed paychecks across the country, would normally spell disaster for a ruling party, and, indeed, United Russia’s popularity has fallen below 50 percent in recent months. But the party is expected to retain a majority of the 450 seats in the State Duma, or lower house, partially by domination of public media and administrative resources, which puts the power of local and regional governments behind the party, and partially by a strong showing in new single-mandate districts, where voters choose individual officeholders, as in the United States, rather than voting for a political party.
But United Russia’s greatest advantage is that, in a political arena dominated by Putin, there is not much of an alternative.
“The president’s party, who else would I vote for?” said Nadezhda Osetinskaya, a 67-year-old pensioner and former nurse who lined up before polls opened at 8 a.m. at a school in northwest Moscow.
Osetinskaya had her share of complaints. Prices for food and medicine are increasing, she said, and she required support from her children to live on her $250 monthly pension. She was unhappy with the quality of care at a hospital where she receives treatment for a kidney ailment. The city had carried out years of road work, she said, but the potholes on her neighborhood streets are legion, probably the result of corruption.
But on broader questions, she enthusiastically supported Putin, lauding the recent annexation of Crimea and blaming Russia’s economic difficulties on a Western conspiracy. Voting for United Russia was a way to support Putin, she reiterated.
“Soon, things will turn around, but for now, we need to stand by our president,” she said. “He’ll remember that we did.”
Many of those voting early were pensioners, as well as workers from schools, the local government administration and other jobs paid for by the city. Out of 20 people approached at one polling station, one man, who gave his name as Mikhail, said he would vote for the liberal Yabloko party.
“I’m still voting against the party of crooks and thieves,” he said, a reference to a protest slogan against United Russia from 2011, when viral videos of ballot stuffing brought more than 50,000 Muscovites onto the frigid streets to chant, “Russia without Putin!” The protest movement petered out in 2012 because of internal differences among the protesters and a government crackdown.
The Kremlin’s strategy during this election cycle has been to emphasize legitimacy, installing Ella Pamfilova, a well-regarded former human rights ombudsman, as the elections chief.
At a news conference last week, Pamfilova said that she will resign if the elections are marred by fraud and that the primary culprits in vote-rigging are generally local power-brokers seeking to please the Kremlin.
Sunday’s vote marks the first time that Crimea, the peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014, will take part in Russian parliamentary elections, eliciting protests from Ukraine and the United States.