MOSCOW - Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's party saw its majority in Russia's parliament weaken sharply, according to preliminary election results released Monday, a humiliating setback for the man who has steadily tightened his grip on the nation for nearly 12 years.
Some opposition politicians and election monitors said even a result of around 50 percent for Putin's United Russia party was inflated because of vote fraud. Their claims were backed by international observers, who pointed to procedural violations and serious indications of ballot stuffing after a campaign slanted in favor of United Russia.
"To me, this election was like a game in which only some players are allowed to compete," Heidi Tagliavini, the head of the international observer mission, said at a news conference.
United Russia is still expected to retain its majority in the lower house and Putin is all but certain to win next March's presidential election, but Sunday's vote badly dented his carefully groomed image. It reflected a strong public frustration with the lack of political competition, ubiquitous official corruption and the gap between rich and poor.
With about 96 percent of precincts counted, United Russia was leading with 49.5 percent of the vote, Central Election Commission chief Vladimir Churov said. He predicted that it will get 238 of the Duma's 450 seats, a sharp drop compared to the previous vote that landed the party a two-thirds majority in the State Duma, allowing it to change the constitution.
Final preliminary results were to be announced on Monday morning, but the count dragged on for longer than expected. Some opposition politicians alleged that election officials may manipulate the vote count to make sure that United Russia gets over 50 percent mark. Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister who is now in opposition, said that Putin badly needs the figure to avoid looking weak.
The monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly wouldn't say if the irregularities could be at the scale to question if United Russia has an unearned majority. But Tagliavini said that of the 150 polling stations where the counting was observed, "34 were assessed to be very bad."
Putin tried to put a positive spin on the returns, saying late Sunday that "we can ensure the stable development of the country with this result." But he appeared glum when speaking to supporters at United Russia headquarters and limited his remarks to a terse statement.
United Russia has been seen increasingly as the party of corrupt officials, and its description as a "party of crooks and thieves" has stuck, flashing up as the first suggestion on Russia's top web search engine.
Seeing the declining fortunes of his party, Putin named his handpicked successor as president, Dmitry Medvedev, to lead United Russia's list. The vote will further weaken the position of Medvedev, whom Putin promised to name prime minister after the presidential vote, a move that has fueled public irritation.
In the runup to the vote, Putin also sought to stem a quick decline in United Russia's popularity by trying to expand its support base with a so-called Popular Front, an umbrella group for unions, professional associations, veteran groups and others. But the effort has brought no visible result, and Putin last month received a stinging blow to his own ego when he was met with catcalls after a mixed martial arts fight at a Moscow arena.
Opposition leader Boris Nemtsov said the vote spelled the end of Putin's "honeymoon" with the nation and predicted that his rule will soon "collapse like a house of cards." "He needs to hold an honest presidential election and allow opposition candidates to register for the race, if he doesn't want to be booed from Kamchatka to Kaliningrad," Nemtsov said on Ekho Moskvy radio.
Security was tight in central Moscow with police trucks parked in some areas. Police said they arrested more than 100 protesters who tried to stage an unsanctioned rally in Moscow and about 70 others in St. Petersburg.
The Communist Party appeared to benefit most from the protest vote, with exit polls and the early returns predicting it would get nearly 20 percent, up from less than 12 percent four years ago. The socialist Just Russia and the Liberal Democratic Party led by mercurial nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky are also expected to increase their representation in the Duma.
Despite that, Putin should still have no problem getting his laws rubber-stamped. Even the Communists have posed only token opposition in the outgoing Duma, and the two other parties have consistently voted with United Russia.
Medvedev said Monday that United Russia would be ready to build coalitions in the new Duma, even though it will have a majority. He said he may fire governors of the provinces where the party fared particularly badly.
About 60 percent of Russia's 110 million registered voters cast ballots, down from 64 percent four years ago.
Only seven parties were allowed to field candidates for parliament this year, while the most vocal opposition groups were barred from the race.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the U.S. has "serious concerns" about the elections.
"Russian voters deserve a full investigation of all credible reports of electoral fraud and manipulation and we hope in particular that then Russian authorities will take action" on reports that come forward, Clinton said.
The international monitors said the election administration lacked independence, most media were partial and state authorities interfered unduly at different levels.
This "did not provide the conditions for fair electoral competiton," said Petros Efthymiou, coordinator of the short-term observation mission. "Changes are needed for the will of the people to be respected."
Social media were flooded with messages reporting violations. Many people reported seeing buses deliver groups of people to polling stations, with some of the buses carrying young men who looked like football fans.
"The elections were unprecedented in terms of dirt, pressure and the use of a well-oiled falsification machine," Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov said Monday, alleging that the vote is still being rigged as the count is going on. His party said it recorded violations at some 1,600 polling stations and said they would appeal election results at each of them.
Russia's only independent election monitoring group, Golos, which is funded by U.S. and European grants, has come under heavy official pressure in the past week. Golos' website was incapacitated by hackers on Sunday, and its director Lilya Shibanova and her deputy had their cell phone numbers, email and social media accounts hacked.
Andrey Buzin, chief of Golos election monitoring, said it had received more than 1,500 complaints about violations.
But despite the heavy-handed state interference in the campaign and numerous violations, voters still took advantage of their right to express their choice, observers said.
"Yesterday, it was proven by these voters that not everything was fixed, that the result really matters," said Tiny Kox of the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly.