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Exit polls show Putin's party getting less than 50 percent in Russia's parliamentary election
MOSCOW (AP) ' Exit polls cited by Russian state television are showing Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's party tallying less than 50 percent of the vote in Russia's parliamentary election.
The results represent a significant drop in support for United Russia compared to the previous election four years ago when it won over 64 percent of the vote nationwide.
The early returns from Sunday's vote signal it may lose its current two-third majority that allowed it to change the constitution unchallenged.
The drop reflects a sense of disenchantment with Putin's authoritarian course, rampant corruption and the gap between ordinary Russians and the super-rich.
United Russia is followed by the Communist Party with nearly 20 percent of the vote, according to two separate exit polls cited by Channel One and Rossiya television.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.
MOSCOW (AP) ' Russians cast their ballots with muted enthusiasm in parliamentary elections Sunday, a vote opinion polls suggest could reduce the strength of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's party. Rival parties and election monitors, which have suffered from government crackdowns, alleged significant violations at the polls.
Although Putin and his United Russia party have dominated Russian politics for more than a decade, popular discontent appears to be growing with Putin's strongman style, widespread official corruption and the gap between ordinary Russians and the country's floridly super-rich.
United Russia holds a two-thirds majority in the outgoing State Duma. But a survey last month by the independent Levada Center polling agency indicated the party could get only about 53 percent of the vote in this election, depriving it of the number of seats necessary to change the constitution unchallenged.
Putin wants United Russia ' which many critics now deride as the "party of crooks and thieves" ' to do well in the parliamentary election to help pave the way for his return to the presidency in a vote now three months away. He previously served as president in 2000-2008.
He has warned that a parliament with a wide array of parties would lead to political instability and claimed that Western governments want to undermine the election. A Western-funded election-monitoring group has come under strong official pressure and its Web site was incapacitated by hackers on Sunday.
Only seven parties have been allowed to field candidates for parliament this year, while the most vocal opposition groups have been denied registration and barred from campaigning.
Several parties complained Sunday of extensive election violations aimed at boosting United Russia's vote count, including party observers being hindered in their work.
Communist chief Gennady Zyuganov said his party monitors thwarted an attempt to stuff a ballot box at a Moscow polling station where they found 300 ballots already in the box before the start of the vote.
He said incidents of ballot-stuffing were reported at several other stations in Moscow, Rostov-on-Don and other areas. In the southern city of Krasnodar, unidentified people posing as Communist monitors had shown up at polling stations and the real observers from the party weren't allowed in, Zyuganov said.
In Vladivostok, voters complained to police that United Russia was offering free food in exchange for promises to vote for the party. In St. Petersburg, an Associated Press photographer saw a United Russia emblem affixed to the curtains on a voting booth.
Golos, the country's only independent election-monitoring group, said that in the Volga River city of Samara observers and election commission members from opposition parties had been barred from verifying that the ballot boxes were properly sealed at all polling stations.
Many violations involve absentee ballots, Golos director Liliya Shibanova said. People with absentee certificates were being bused to cast ballots at multiple polling stations in so-called "cruise voting."
Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister during Putin's first presidential term, said he and other opposition activists who voted Sunday are under no illusion that their votes will be counted fairly.
"It is absolutely clear there will be no real count," he said. "The authorities created an imitation of a very important institution whose name is free election, that is not free and is not elections."
An interim report from an elections-monitoring mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe noted that "most parties have expressed a lack of trust in the fairness of the electoral process."
United Russia's dominance of politics has induced a grudging sense of impotence among many in the country of 143 million. In Vladivostok, voter Artysh Munzuk noted the contrast between the desire to do one's civic duty and the feeling that it doesn't matter.
"It's very important to come to the polling stations and vote, but many say that it's useless," said the 20-year-old university student.
There are around 110 million eligible voters in Russia and turnout in many areas was lower Sunday compared to the previous election. In several far eastern regions and in Siberia turnout varied between 40 to 48 percent with two hours to go until the polls closed.
A few dozen activists of the Left Front opposition group tried to stage an unsanctioned protest just outside Moscow's Red Square on Sunday, but were quickly dispersed by police, who detained about a dozen of them. Later in the evening, police said they arrested more than 100 other opposition demonstrators in the capital and about 70 in St. Petersburg when they attempted to hold an unauthorized rally.
The websites of Golos and Ekho Moskvy, a prominent, independent-minded radio station were down on Sunday. Both claimed the failures were due to denial-of-service hacker attacks.
"The attack on the site on election day is obviously connected to attempts to interfere with publication of information about violations," Ekho Moskvy editor Alexey Venediktov said in a Twitter post.
Golos, which is funded by U.S. and European grants, has come under massive official pressure in the past week after Putin accused Western governments of trying to influence the election and likened recipients of Western aid to Judas.
Shibanova, the Golos leader, said its hotline was flooded Sunday with autonomically made calls that effectively blocked it. Prior to the vote, many of the group's activists were visited by secret police, while Shibanova was held for 12 hours at an airport and forced to hand over her laptop.
On Friday, the group was fined the equivalent of $1,000 by a Moscow court for violating a law that prohibits publication of election opinion research for five days before a vote.
U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Beyrle said in his blog that he called the Golos head Saturday "to express my support for the work they have been doing, and convey the concern of the White House about the pressure they have been experiencing over the last week."
The group has compiled some 5,300 complaints of election-law violations ahead of the vote, most of which are linked to United Russia. Roughly a third of the complainants ' mostly government employees and students ' say employers and professors are pressuring them to vote for the party.
Lynn Berry, Nataliya Vasilyeva and Vladimir Isachenkov contributed to this report.