Heeding their popular president’s ominous warnings that Russia’s future dangled in the balance, voters flocked to the polls Sunday to cast ballots in an unorthodox parliamentary election.
Bombarded with the message that they should treat the election as a referendum on President Vladimir V. Putin’s rule, voters turned out in large numbers, with lines forming at some polling stations as people waited for their chance at the ballot box. As expected, Putin’s United Russia party swept up more than 60% of the vote, according to early estimates.
The surge of electoral participation, with turnout reportedly topping 60%, reflected Putin’s aggressive campaign to get out the vote.
“The president is trying to establish some kind of order in this country,” said Yulia Mikhailova, 47, a disabled Muscovite who limped to the polls with the help of her cane. “He’s a person who has turned Russia into a country to be reckoned with.”
Furious opposition leaders called Sunday’s election the least democratic since the collapse of the Soviet Union and vowed to challenge the results in court.
“This will beat all records in modern Russian history for irregularities,” former chess champion and prominent opposition leader Garry Kasparov said. “Putin has been destroying democracy, poisoning it for the last eight years.”
Because the vote takes place at a moment of swelling national uncertainty over the country’s political future, its importance mushroomed far beyond seating lawmakers in an assuredly pro-Kremlin legislature. Putin’s second term ends next year, and under the constitution he cannot seek a third consecutive term.
Yet by turning the elections into a one-man popularity contest, the president is laying the groundwork for a popular mandate that will help him keep a grip on power, analysts say. Putin could use triumph at the polls to go on to serve as prime minister or party chief, or could encourage his party to amend the constitution so that he can stay on as president. However, Putin has repeatedly denied any plans to remain president after his term expires.
Votes were still being tallied late Sunday when United Russia leader Boris Gryzlov told Russian television that his party now had the right to “ensure the succession of state policy for the next four years.”
“De facto, they came to the referendum to show support for the course of our president,” he said.
Eleven parties were on the ballot. The groups listed the names of their three top officers -- except United Russia, which listed only one name: Putin.
As they pulled their fur caps over their ears and headed back out into the snow, many voters seemed utterly oblivious that they were voting for parliament. For better or worse, it was Putin who lingered in their thoughts.
“We want Putin to win very, very much,” said 75-year-old Maria Ravinskaya, blue eyes sparkling over her fur collar. “We hope Putin will take us to a higher level of life.”
Polls estimate the president’s approval rating at more than 80%, but a sprinkling of skeptics milled among the Putin enthusiasts Sunday.
In the town of Krasnogorsk outside Moscow, bespectacled army officer Andrei Shamanayev said he would never vote for Putin or his party. Pro-government propaganda is deadening healthy political debate, he said.
“I don’t understand all this fuss about him,” said Shamanayev, 28. “What has he done?”
“Not everything is as good as they tell us on TV,” complained the officer, who spends almost every cent of his “pauper’s salary” on an apartment a two-hour commute from the capital.
The parliamentary elections were controversial from the earliest days of the campaign. New restrictions prevented many opposition parties from participating. Even parties that managed to get onto the ballot will have to win 7% of the vote to secure a seat in parliament. Early returns indicated that only four parties made the cut.
As the vote neared, Russian officials feuded bitterly with monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, blocking visas and imposing restrictions until the organization dropped plans to observe the election. Russia countered by accusing the group of caving in to U.S. pressure.
Shortly after the first election results were reported, the White House urged Russian authorities to investigate allegations of election violations.
“In the run-up to election day, we expressed our concern regarding the use of state administrative resources in support of United Russia, the bias of the state-owned or influenced media in favor of United Russia, intimidation of political opposition, and the lack of equal opportunity encountered by opposition candidates and parties,” said National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe.
Putin’s role in the campaign raised eyebrows. When the president took to the government-controlled airwaves last week, he warned that if the ruling party did not win, Russia could fall under the sway of shadowy, Western-backed opponents.
“He spoke in his capacity as president, not as a candidate, and called upon people to vote for United Russia,” said Sergei Mitrokhin of the opposition Yabloko party. “This is a gross violation.”
Government employees, factory workers and soldiers were being heavily pressured to vote for United Russia, opposition parties charged.
In many polling stations, Russians had to cast ballots in plain view of other voters, monitors and police. There were no curtains or doors to shield voters as they marked outsized ballots. Afterward, as the ballots were fed into electronic scanners, it was easy for bystanders to see which box had been checked.
In some areas, election monitors and journalists had trouble getting inside polling stations. Despite carrying government-issued election credentials, reporters for the Los Angeles Times were kicked out of a voting center on the outskirts of Moscow by policemen who said they had orders to keep journalists away.
None of the troubles at the polls seemed to damp the affections of Putin’s many fans. If anything, many Russians wax wistful for the days when their country was ruled by a strong, combative leader -- and embrace Putin because he seems to represent a return to stability and centralized power.
“Finally Russia has a president who really has a solid personality,” said Andrei Kondrashov, 24, an economics student. “Russia, as a great power, should be represented by a strong man.”
“We don’t want a total dictator in charge, but we want a strong hand.”
Kondrashov’s wife, fellow student Alla Gogayeva, 22, cuddled against his side. She too said she had given “a vote of confidence for Putin.”
“She’s in complete solidarity with her husband,” Kondrashov said proudly.
“Not with my husband,” she corrected him. “With Putin.”
Times staff writers Sergei L. Loiko in Moscow and Josh Meyer in Washington contributed to this report.