- Associated Press - Sunday, December 4, 2011

MOSCOW — Exit polls cited by Russian state television showed Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s party with less than 50 percent of the vote in Sunday’s parliamentary elections, a significant drop that reflects Russians’ growing weariness with his rule.

The first official results with 15 percent of the vote counted also showed only about 46 percent for United Russia, compared with 64 percent in 2007.

Opposition parties and election monitors said even this figure was inflated, alleging ballot-stuffing and other significant violations at the polls.

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, pervasive official corruption and the gap between ordinary Russians and the country’s floridly super-rich.

Mr. Putin wanted to see United Russia do well in the election as a sign of support for his return to the presidency in a vote now three months away. He served as president from 2000 to 2008.

United Russia held a two-thirds majority in the outgoing State Duma, which allowed it to change the constitution unchallenged. Mr. Putin has warned that a parliament with a wide array of parties would lead to political instability.

The Communist Party appeared to be benefiting from the protest vote, with exit polls predicting it would get nearly 20 percent.

The exit poll conducted by the VTsIOM polling agency had United Russia tallying 48.5 percent, and another done by the FOM polling agency had it winning 46 percent of the vote. The two polls were reported by Channel One and Rossiya television.

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

Several parties complained Sunday of extensive election violations aimed at boosting United Russia’s vote count, including party observers being hindered in their work.

Communist chief Gennady Zyuganov said his party’s monitors thwarted an attempt to stuff a ballot box at a Moscow polling station where they found 300 ballots in the box before the start of the vote.

He said incidents of ballot-stuffing were reported at several other stations in Moscow, Rostov-on-Don and other areas.

In the southern city of Krasnodar, unidentified people posing as Communist monitors had arrived at polling stations and the real observers from the party weren’t allowed in, Mr. Zyuganov said.

In Vladivostok, voters complained to police that United Russia was offering free food in exchange for promises to vote for the party.

Russia’s only independent election monitoring group, Golos, has come under strong official pressure and its website was incapacitated by hackers Sunday.

Golos was still able to field more than 2,000 observers and they reported numerous violations, director Liliya Shibanova said.

Mikhail Kasyanov, a prime minister during Mr. Putin’s first presidential term, 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.”

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