United Russia ahead as polls close in parliamentary elections

Russians have voted on the third and final day for a new parliament, a vote in which pro-Kremlin ruling party is expected to retain majority.

Members of a local election commission count ballots at a polling station inside Kazansky railway terminal after polls closed in Moscow, Russia [Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters]

Voting has ended in Russia’s parliamentary election and the country’s elections commission says early results on Sunday show the country’s Kremlin-loyal United Russia party was on track to win a majority despite losing ground to its opponents.

With 33 percent of ballots counted, the Central Election Commission said United Russia had won just over 45 percent of the vote, with its nearest rival, the Communist Party, at around 22 percent and the nationalist LDPR party with around 9 percent.

United Russia, which firmly supports President Vladimir Putin, won just over 54 percent of the vote in the last parliamentary elections in 2016, but it has since faced a slump in its popularity due to falling living standards.

The election is widely seen as an important part of Putin’s efforts to cement his grip on power ahead of the 2024 presidential election, in which control of the State Duma, or parliament, will be key.

Russians across 11 time zones voted on the third and final day on Sunday with the polls marked by numerous reports of violations, including ballot-stuffing, inadequate security and pressure on election monitors.

The vote this year has seen most opposition politicians and activists barred from running as Russian authorities unleashed a massive effort to suppress protests and dissent.

Tomila Lankina, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, told Al Jazeera the elections were marked by “unprecedented levels of manipulation, intimidation, even physical violence against observers”.

The election lacked significant opposition presence after authorities declared organisations linked to imprisoned Alexey Navalny, the Kremlin’s most prominent foe, to be “extremist”.

Allies of Navalny had urged Russians to follow his tactical voting strategy, which amounts to supporting the candidate most likely to defeat United Russia in a given electoral district.

By Sunday afternoon – the last of the three days of voting the government allowed this year, citing coronavirus concerns – voter turnout was only more than 40 percent and polls in Russia’s far east and Siberian regions had already closed.

Reports of violations from Russian media, opposition politicians and election observers have been flowing since Friday morning, when unexpectedly long lines formed at polling stations in Moscow and other cities.

Some of those queueing told reporters they were forced to vote by their employers, often a state-run institution.

Over the weekend, multiple videos of ballot-stuffing circled on social media. In some regions, incidents of “carousel voting” were reported – groups of voters casting ballots multiple times at different polling stations – as well as clashes between election monitors and poll workers.

Russia’s Central Election Commission chief Ella Pamfilova confirmed at least eight incidents of ballot-stuffing in six Russian regions. In all, the commission has so far invalidated 7,465 ballots in 14 regions.

Voting by party list accounts for only half of the Duma’s 450 seats, so it is unclear if United Russia would end up with fewer than the 334 seats it had going into the election.

The other half of seats are assigned according to single-mandate races, and with 15 percent of those votes counted United Russia candidates were ahead in at least 143 of the 225 seats.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies