Putin tightens control with big win for ruling party

Vladimir Putin won even greater supremacy over Russia’s political system after the ruling United Russia party took three quarters of the seats in Parliament in a weekend election, paving the way for him to run for a fourth term as President.

With most votes counted, the party, founded by Mr. Putin almost 16 years ago after he first became President, was on track to win 76 per cent of the seats in Russia’s Duma, the lower house of Parliament, up from just over half in 2011.

‘Vote of Confidence’

That would be its biggest ever majority. Mr. Putin’s spokesman called it “an impressive vote of confidence” in the Russian leader and dismissed critics who noted a sharp fall in turnout. Liberal opposition parties failed to win any seats. Dmitry Gudkov, the only liberal opposition politician to hold a seat before, said he had been beaten by a United Russia candidate.

European election monitors said the vote was marred by numerous procedural irregularities and restrictions on basic rights. Russian officials said there was no evidence of widespread fraud. Near complete results showed turnout was only around 48 per cent, down from 60 per cent in 2011, suggesting apathy among some Russians — particularly in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Mr. Putin, speaking to United Russia campaign staff a few minutes after polling stations closed on Sunday night, said the win showed voters still trusted the leadership despite an economic slowdown made worse by Western sanctions over Ukraine. “We can say with certainty that the party has achieved a very good result; it’s won,” Mr. Putin said at the United Russia headquarters, where he arrived together with his ally, Dmitry Medvedev, who is Prime Minister and the party’s leader.

Way ahead

Alluding to the spluttering economy, which is forecast to shrink this year by at least 0.3 per cent, Mr. Putin said: “We know that life is hard for people, there are lots of problems, lots of unresolved problems. Nevertheless, we have this result.” Mr. Putin’s aides are likely to use the result as a springboard for his own re-election campaign in 2018, though he has not yet confirmed whether he will seek another term. United Russia won 343 seats of the total of 450 in the Duma, the Central Election Commission said, after 93 per cent of ballots had been counted.

More seats than before

That is up from 238 seats in the last parliamentary election, in 2011, and is enough to allow the United Russia to unilaterally change the Constitution, though Mr. Putin can run again under the existing one as he was Prime Minister between his second and third terms.

Other parties trailed far behind. According to the near complete official vote count, the Communists were on track to come second with 42 seats, the populist LDPR party third with 41, and the Left-of-Centre Just Russia party fourth with 21 seats. All three tend to vote with United Russia on crunch issues and avoid direct criticism.

Among voting irregularities witnessed by Reuters were several people voting twice in one polling station in the Mordovia region of central Russia. Official results in another area showed a turnout double that recorded on the spot.

Ilkka Kanerva, a Finnish parliamentarian and special coordinator for the elections from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said the OSCE had noted some improvements, including greater transparency when it came to administration. But he said the overall picture was beset by problems. — Reuters