- Associated Press - Sunday, December 4, 2011

MOSCOW (AP) — Russians cast their ballots with muted enthusiasm in national parliamentary elections Sunday, and exit polls cited by Russian state television showed Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s party tallying less than 50 percent of the vote.

The results represent a significant drop in support for United Russia, Mr. Putin’s party, compared with the previous election four years ago, when it won more than 64 percent of the vote nationwide.

The early returns signaled that the party may lose its current two-thirds majority in the State Duma, which allowed it to change the constitution unchallenged.

United Russia is followed by the Communist Party with nearly 20 percent of the vote, according to two separate exit polls cited by Channel One and Rossiya television.

Although Mr. Putin and his United Russia party have dominated Russian politics for more than a decade, popular discontent appears to be growing with Mr. Putin‘s strongman style, widespread corruption among officials, and the gap between ordinary Russians and the country’s floridly superrich.

Mr. Putin wants United Russia to do well in the parliamentary election to help pave the way for his return to the presidency in a vote three months from now.

He had warned that a parliament with a wide array of parties would lead to political instability and claimed that Western governments want to undermine the election. A Western-funded election-monitoring group has come under strong official pressure, and its Web site was incapacitated by hackers on Sunday.

Only seven parties were allowed to field candidates for parliament this year, while the most vocal opposition groups were denied registration and barred from campaigning.

The Communist Party and the liberal Yabloko party complained Sunday of extensive election violations aimed at boosting United Russia’s vote count, including party observers being hindered in their work.

In Vladivostok, voters complained to police that United Russia was offering free food in exchange for promises to vote for the party. In St. Petersburg, an Associated Press photographer saw a United Russia emblem affixed to the curtains on a voting booth.

Golos, the country’s only independent election-monitoring group, said that in the Volga River city of Samara observers and election commission members from opposition parties had been barred from verifying that the ballot boxes were properly sealed at all polling stations.

Mikhail Kasyanov, a prime minister when Mr. Putin was president, said he and other opposition activists who voted Sunday are under no illusion that their votes will be counted fairly.

“It is absolutely clear there will be no real count,” he said. “The authorities created an imitation of a very important institution whose name is free election, that is not free and is not elections.”

United Russia’s dominance of politics has induced a grudging sense of impotence among many in the country of 143 million. In Vladivostok, voter Artysh Munzuk noted the contrast between the desire to do one’s civic duty and the feeling that it doesn’t matter.

“It’s very important to come to the polling stations and vote, but many say that it’s useless,” the 20-year-old university student said.

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