Vladimir Putin's ruling United Russia party suffers poll blow
Vladimir Putin's ruling United Russia party appears to have been deserted by millions of Russians after partial results showed it had won just under 50 per cent of the vote in a parliamentary election on Sunday.
With 96pc of the vote counted, the country's Central Election Commission said it had won 49.5pc of the vote, technically short of a simple majority but just enough to scrape a majority of seats in the Duma, the lower house of parliament.
Barring the unexpected, United Russia is forecast to control 238 seats in the 450-seat Duma for the next five years, down from 315 seats previously.
While winning almost half the share of the vote would be considered a triumph in many other countries, for United Russia and for the strongman Russian prime minister it is deeply embarrassing.
It was the first chance Russians were given to pronounce on his decision to return to the presidency next year for a third time.
But instead of a ringing endorsement the results showed that support for him and his allies has begun to fall away substantially. In 2007, his party won 64.3pc of the vote in a parliamentary election, a crushing victory that allowed it to unilaterally change the country's constitution.
But those heady days look long gone.
"Russia has a new political reality even if they try to rewrite everything," said Sergei Obukhov, a Communist MP. Some political analysts even called it "the beginning of the end" of Mr Putin's regime.
But Mr Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev tried to put a brave face on things.
A visibly peeved Mr Putin said on Sunday night that the initial results were "optimal" and would ensure the country's "stable development". President Medvedev said he was also satisfied, hailing the results as an example of "democracy in action".
The result is unlikely to stop Mr Putin, who is currently prime minister, from returning to the presidency next year but it will cause unease in the Kremlin which has worked hard to prop up his personal ratings which remain above 50pc.
"His ratings have fallen," admitted Yelena Orlova, a pensioner who voted for his party on Sunday. She said corruption scandals had damaged his party's image but that he still remained the most capable politician.
"In the 1990s people were pretty much on the same level (when it came to living standards) but now any local official quickly acquires houses, flats and cars," she told The Daily Telegraph. "People see this and they are not happy," she said.
Sunday's vote was also marred by allegations of "mass fraud." The web site of Golos, the country's only independent election watchdog, was knocked out in a massive cyber attack as were the sites of half a dozen independent-minded media.
The Communist party, which appeared to have come second with almost twenty per cent of the vote, said it had witnessed "mass fraud" with ballot stuffing and multiple 'carousel voting.'
Opposition activists who tried to protest the way in which the election was conducted in central Moscow and St. Petersburg were given short shrift and swiftly arrested or dispersed.
Many Russians credit Mr Putin with delivering higher living standards and restoring national pride in recent years but he was booed in public last month in an incident attributed to voter fatigue with his political longevity.
That, said analysts, was largely because of a growing perception that his party had become dangerously corrupt at a time when the gap between the haves and the have-nots was wider than ever.