Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's United Russia suffered a setback in Russia's parliamentary election on Sunday, polling less than half of the votes and losing its overwhelming majority in the lower house.

With 96 per cent of the ballots counted, United Russia received 49.54 per cent of the votes, down from more than 64 per cent four years ago. It is set to lose almost a quarter of seats in the 450-member State Duma, and will see its 315 seats reduced to 238 seats. This will deny the Kremlin the freedom to change the Constitution at will.

Communists benefit the most

Opposition parties posted significant gains, with Communists benefiting the most from what analysts said was a massive protest vote. The Communist Party grabbed over 19 per cent of the votes, up from 12 per cent last time. A Just Russia party came third with over 13 per cent and Vladimir Zhirinovsky's ultranationalists fourth with 11, 6 per cent.

The ruling party suffered even bigger losses in regional assemblies, failing to win an absolute majority of seats in any but four regions.

The result dealt a blow to Mr. Putin, chairman of United Russia, as he prepares to reclaim presidency in March next.

European monitors criticised lack of fairness in access to resources and media coverage and noted “serious indications of ballot-box stuffing” as well as procedural violations. However, India's Chief Election Commissioner S.Y. Quraishi, who also monitored the election, said he did not see any violation apart from a drunken man trying to vote without his passport.

Opposition parties have alleged large-scale vote fixing, including ballot box-stuffing, “carousel” multiple voting, and rewriting of the final protocols that allowed the ruling party to improve its results.

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