MOSCOW - Russians cast their ballots with muted enthusiasm in parliamentary elections Sunday, a vote opinion polls suggest could reduce the strength of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's party. Rival parties and election monitors, which have suffered from government crackdowns, alleged significant violations at the polls.
Although Putin and his United Russia party have dominated Russian politics for more than a decade, popular discontent appears to be growing with Putin's strongman style, widespread official corruption and the gap between ordinary Russians and the country's floridly super-rich.
United Russia holds a two-thirds majority in the outgoing State Duma. But a survey last month by the independent Levada Center polling agency indicated the party could get only about 53 percent of the vote in this election, depriving it of the number of seats necessary to change the constitution unchallenged.
Putin wants United Russia which many critics now deride as the "party of crooks and thieves" to do well in the parliamentary election to help pave the way for his return to the presidency in a vote now three months away. He previously served as president in 2000-2008.
He has warned that a parliament with a wide array of parties would lead to political instability and claimed that Western governments want to undermine the election. A Western-funded election-monitoring group has come under strong official pressure and its Web site was incapacitated by hackers on Sunday.
Only seven parties have been 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 monitors thwarted an attempt to stuff a ballot box at a Moscow polling station where they found 300 ballots already 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 shown up at polling stations and the real observers from the party weren't allowed in, Zyuganov said.
In Vladivostok, voters complained to police that United Russia was offering free food in exchange for promises to vote for the party. In St. Petersburg, an Associated Press photographer saw a United Russia emblem affixed to the curtains on a voting booth.
Golos, the country's only independent election-monitoring group, said that in the Volga River city of Samara observers and election commission members from opposition parties had been barred from verifying that the ballot boxes were properly sealed at all polling stations.
Many violations involve absentee ballots, Golos director Liliya Shibanova said. People with absentee certificates were being bused to cast ballots at multiple polling stations in so-called "cruise voting."
Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister during 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."