The governing United Russia party looks set to consolidate its dominance over Russia’s lower house after a parliamentary election on Sunday.
With a quarter of the ballots counted, the party backed by President Putin has a commanding lead, with over 50 percent of the vote.
The results so far give United Russia an even more substantial margin than two exit polls had suggested. Published around an hour after the end of voting, they gave the party just under 50 percent of the vote. However, the signs are that turnout is much lower than in the last election five years ago, suggesting a certain amount of voter apathy, with many people struggling to get by amid a poorly performing economy.
The early results put the nationalist Liberal Democrats (LPDR) in second place, just ahead of the Communists who slip into third. Both scored under 20 percent of the vote. In fourth place is Fair Russia with well under 10 percent of the vote.
These are the same four parties represented in the parliament at the last election. The polls suggest that liberal opposition parties have failed to pass the five percent threshold needed to be represented via party lists in the Duma, although there is a possibility they may qualify via individual constituencies.
President Putin has proclaimed victory for the United Russia party. He visited campaign workers with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
Voting got underway at 2000 GMT on the Chukotka Peninsula opposite Alaska and wrapped up in Kaliningrad, Russia’s most westerly point.
The polls closed at 1800 GMT on Sunday. An hour beforehand national turnout was estimated to be less than 40 percent. Some cases of irregularities have been reported.
President Vladimir Putin cast his vote in Moscow, at a polling station set up in Russia’s Academy of Science.
An estimated 110 million people are registered to vote across Russia’s eleven time zones.
The vote is being closely watched to see how many turn out to vote.
There is some evidence that apathy has been widespread. The TASS news agency reported that turnout at 19.00 Moscow time was estimated to be just under 40 percent.
Two exit polls were published around an hour after polls closed. A survey by state monitor VTSIOM put United Russia on 44.7 percent, well ahead of the next party the nationalist Liberal Democrats (LDPR) on 15.3 percent and the Communists on 14.9 percent. A separate exit survey by Public Opinion Fund gave United Russia 49.4 percent, with the Communists on 16.3 percent and LDPR on 14.3 percent.
United Russia holds 238 of the 450 seats in the Duma.
The party also dominates the more than 80 regional parliaments.
It draws on the support of the other three parties in the federal Duma.
It also benefits from its association with 63-year-old Putin, who has a personal approval rate of around 80 percent after 17 years in power as either president or prime minister.
Other parties are hoping to clinch at least two dozen seats.
The pro-Kremlin Russian Liberal Democratic Party, led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky has 56 seats in the lower house.
Gennady Zhyuganov is the leader of Russia’s pro-Kremlin Communist Party. The party is polling second to United Russia.
Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov’s People’s Freedom Party is also in contention, along with Yabloko led by Grigory Yavlinsky.
The opposition hopes it can win at least two dozen seats.
Polls suggest they are facing an uphill battle to do so.
The election for the Duma is being seen as a dry run for President Vladimir Putin’s expected presidential campaign in 2018.
Analysts say it is likely to show support for Putin is holding up, despite sanctions and a profound economic slowdown.
Putin has said it is too early to say if he will go for what would be a fourth presidential term in 2018.
If he did, and won, he would be in power until 2024, longer than Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.
Sunday’s vote is also being seen as a measure of how well the Kremlin can oversee trouble-free elections.
It will be the first parliamentary vote since 2011, when allegations of ballot-rigging sparked big protests against Putin in the capital.
Anxious to avoid a repeat of 2011’s street protests, Kremlin officials have tried to assure Russians that the vote will be the cleanest yet in the country’s modern history.