Vladimir Putin's United Russia party won a crushing victory in parliamentary elections yesterday, paving the way for the leader to remain in control even after he steps down as president.
United Russia was on course to win over 60 per cent of the vote, amid criticism from opposition parties that the campaign and the vote itself were marred by an array of violations.
If exit polls were correct, Putin's party will have won 306 of the 450 seats in the Duma, Russia's parliament, and the president will feel he has a mandate to continue exercising political power after the March presidential elections in which he cannot stand, though he might choose to continue either as party leader or prime minister.
The Communists were placed second with just over 11 per cent of the vote, but the biggest surprise of the night was that two other parties looked set to pass the 7 per cent barrier to entering the Duma. One was the Liberal Democratic Party, among whose candidates is Andrei Lugovoi, wanted in Britain for the murder of Alexander Litvinenko. Mr Lugovoi will now become a member of parliament and will enjoy immunity from prosecution. Fair Russia, another party supporting Mr Putin, also looked set to squeeze into the Duma.
Voting opened in the far east of Russia while it was still Saturday evening in Moscow. Helicopters were used to bring ballots to remote reindeer herding camps in the region of Chukotka, while Governor Roman Abramovich had flown in from London to cast his ballot.
Voting finally finished when the polls closed in Kaliningrad, 11 time zones to the west. Across Russia, the biggest issue was not who would win but how high the turnout would be.
This was reported to be over 60 per cent, a figure that seemed hard to believe given the widespread apathy surrounding the election. With party policies eschewed in favour of a quasi-referendum on Mr Putin, it was his name that was repeatedly used in the campaign to drum up support for United Russia, which had a near monopoly on television coverage.
On the day, attempts to raise turnout ran the gamut from the playful to the sinister. Young voters were offered lottery scratchcards with a chance to win £20 of mobile phone credit. Free food and drink were handed out, and "carouselling" – bussing groups of young people from station to station to cast multiple votes – was widely reported. Independent observers were denied access to some polling stations for "looking suspicious". In Chechnya, now under the rule of Kremlin-backed hardman Ramzan Kadyrov, turnout was a suspicious 99 per cent.
Stories of students and workers being threatened with dire consequences if they didn't vote for United Russia were legion. Perhaps most disturbing was a claim by opposition leader Garry Kasparov that patients in state-run hospitals had been told that their treatment would be terminated if they did not vote for the President's party.
Mr Kasparov, who spent much of last week in jail for leading a banned march last weekend, and whose coalition is barred from standing at the elections, accused Russian authorities of "raping the whole electoral system".