- 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.

There are about 110 million eligible voters in Russia, and turnout in many areas appeared low Sunday. In the Pacific Coast regions of Sakhalin and Kamchatka, turnout was just 45 percent to 48 percent with two hours to go until the polls closed.

Turnout in some regions appeared high, however. An AP reporter saw a polling station in Moscow’s southwest filled with voters, including an unusually high number of young people compared with the previous election.

Mr. Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev made final appeals for their party Friday, the last day of campaigning, warning that a parliament made up of diverse political camps would be incapable of making decisions.

The view underlines Russian authorities’ continuing discomfort with political pluralism and preference for top-down operation.

As president in 2000-2008, Mr. Putin‘s autocratic leadership style won wide support among Russians exhausted by a decade of post-Soviet uncertainty. But United Russia has become increasingly disliked, seen as stifling opposition, representing a corrupt bureaucracy and often called “the party of crooks and thieves.”

A few dozen activists of the Left Front opposition group tried to stage an unsanctioned protest just outside Red Square in Moscow on Sunday but were dispersed quickly by police, who detained about a dozen of them.

In the western city of Bryansk, an unidentified assailant threw a firebomb into the window of the local United Russia’s office. No one was hurt, and the fire quickly was extinguished, according to local police.

An interim report from an elections-monitoring mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe noted that “most parties have expressed a lack of trust in the fairness of the electoral process.”

The websites of Golos and Ekho Moskvy, a prominent, independent-minded radio station, were down on Sunday. Both claimed the failures were due to denial-of-service hacker attacks.

“The attack on the site on election day is obviously connected to attempts to interfere with publication of information about violations,” Ekho Moskvy editor Alexey Venediktov said in a Twitter post.

Golos has come under strong pressure in the week leading up to the vote.

Its leader, Lilya Shibanova, was held at a Moscow airport for 12 hours upon her Friday return from Poland after refusing to give her laptop computer to security officers, said Golos‘ deputy director, Grigory Melkonyants. On Friday, the group was fined the equivalent of $1,000 by a Moscow court for violating a law that prohibits publication of election opinion research for five days before a vote.

John Beyrle, U.S. ambassador to Russia, said in his blog that he called the Golos head Saturday “to express my support for the work they have been doing, and convey the concern of the White House about the pressure they have been experiencing over the last week.”

Mr. Putin last Sunday accused Western governments of trying to influence the election. Golos is funded by grants from the United States and Europe.

The group has compiled some 5,300 complaints of election-law violations ahead of the vote. Most are linked to United Russia. Roughly a third of the complainants — mostly government employees and students — say employers and professors are pressuring them to vote for the party.

Lynn Berry and Nataliya Vasilyeva contributed to this report.