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Vladimir Putin poll setback amid cheating claims

By Shaun Walker in Moscow

Despite widespread reports of electoral fraud, Vladimir Putin's United Russia Party failed to secure the resounding victory it had hoped for in yesterday's parliamentary elections, early results indicated.

With 17% of the votes counted last night, Russia's Central Election Committee said that United Russia had received about 46%.

The elections were seen as a test of popularity ahead of a presidential vote next March, when Mr Putin intends to return to the Kremlin after a four-year stint as Prime Minister. Exit polls gave similar results.

Despite endless positive media coverage on state-controlled television, reports of ballot stuffing and multiple voting, and pressure on public sector workers to vote for United Russia, the party's support dropped significantly from the 64% it received in 2007.

“It's a total disaster for the party of power,” said political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky, shortly after the first exit polls were announced. Reports of foul play designed to boost results for Mr Putin's party were widespread.

There was a claim that a polling station in Moscow had pens that used erasable ink, meaning that ballots could, in theory, be tampered with.

Elsewhere, a journalist went undercover on a bus full of Kremlin youth activists who were being ferried around Moscow to vote, repeatedly, at different polling stations, in favour of United Russia.

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