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Russia’s ruling United Russia party on Sunday cruised to an easy victory in parliamentary polls that could pave the way for President Vladimir Putin to glide to a fourth term in 2018 elections, partial results showed.
The ballot for the 450-seat State Duma was smooth sailing for authorities desperate to avoid a repeat of mass protests last time round and eager to increase their dominance as Russia faces the longest economic crisis of Putin’s rule.
But indications of a low turnout suggested that many Russians may be turned off by a system in which the Kremlin wields near-total power, which could raise questions over legitimacy.
“We can announce already with certainty that the party secured a good result, that it won,” Putin said after the vote.
“The situation is tough and difficult but the people still voted for United Russia,” he said on state television.
After 30 percent of the ballots in the party-list vote had been counted, Putin’s United Russia had received 52 percent of the vote, far ahead of the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party on 14.7 percent, the Communists on 14.6 and A Just Russia on 6.3, results published by the election commission showed.
Those four parties — which made up the last parliament and all back the Kremlin — were the only ones to clear the five percent threshold needed to claim a share of the one-half of seats up for grabs.
The vote comes as Putin’s approval ratings remain high at around 80 percent and authorities appear to be banking on trouble-free presidential elections in two years.
Preliminary results from Sunday’s polls indicated that liberal opposition groups are unlikely to make it into parliament, with the Yabloko party garnering 1.5 percent.
The Parnas opposition party, headed by former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, meanwhile received a mere 0.6 percent of the vote, early results showed.
The other half of the deputies are being elected on a constituency basis after a change to the election law. So far United Russia is leading in 191 constituencies, the electoral commission said.
Even before the 52 percent result was announced, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev confidently said that the party would end up with an “absolute majority” in the Duma.
Though the overall tally for United Russia was higher than the 49 percent it claimed in 2011, participation was low, particularly in Moscow and Saint Petersburg.
There was no final turnout figure but just a few hours ahead of the polls closing less than 40 percent of voters had cast their ballots.
Sunday’s election follows a tumultuous few years that have seen Russia seize the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine, plunge into its worst standoff with the West since the Cold War and start a military campaign in Syria.
But the Kremlin exerts almost complete control over the media and public discourse, and this year’s election campaign was dubbed the dullest in recent memory.
Looming large was the spectre of mass protests over vote rigging that followed the last legislative polls five years ago and grew into the biggest challenge to Putin since he took charge in 2000.
Since then the Kremlin has cracked down on the right to protest while making a show of stamping out electoral manipulation.
The former scandal-tainted election chief was removed in favour of a human rights advocate who allowed more genuine opposition candidates to take part.
Despite the authorities pledging to crack down on vote-rigging, observers around the country made claims of violations including “cruise-voting” — where people are bussed to vote at multiple polling stations — and ballot stuffing.
Electoral Commission chief Ella Pamfilova admitted that there had been problems in certain regions but officials said the number of violations was way down on the last vote.
“In any case there already is full confidence that the elections are nonetheless quite legitimate,” Pamfilova said.
“And we did a lot for that.”
For the first time since Moscow seized the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in 2014, residents there voted for Russia’s parliament, in a poll slammed by Ukraine as illegal.
Voters in some areas of the vast country were also electing regional leaders.
In the North Caucasus region of Chechnya, strongman Ramzan Kadyrov looked set to win a crushing victory in the first electoral test of his rule after rights groups said that criticism was ruthlessly silenced during the campaign.