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Putin's party getting less than 50 percent in Russia's parliamentary vote in major setback
wMOSCOW (AP) ' Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's party was struggling to reach 50 percent in Russia's parliamentary election, polls and official results showed Sunday, suggesting Russians were wearying of the man who has dominated Russian politics for more than a decade.
Rival parties and election monitors said even this figure was inflated, alleging ballot-stuffing and other significant violations at the polls. Many expressed fears that the vote count would be manipulated.
Putin wanted to see his United Russia party do well in the election as a sign of public support for his return to the presidency in a vote now three months away ' one that he is still expected to win easily.
Putting a positive spin on the disappointing returns, Putin said "we can ensure the stable development of the country with this result," but he appeared glum and limited his remarks to two sentences.
Despite the setback, he was still expected to win the March presidential election and reclaim the position he held from 2000 to 2008. Putin has systematically destroyed any potential challengers. And most Russians do not see any credible alternatives, despite growing dissatisfaction with his strongman style, pervasive official corruption and the gap between ordinary people and the superrich.
United Russia held a two-thirds majority in the outgoing State Duma, which allowed it to change the constitution unchallenged. But it is increasingly disliked, seen as representing a corrupt bureaucracy and known to many as the "party of crooks and thieves."
The Communist Party appeared to be benefiting from the protest vote, with exit polls and the early returns predicting it would get nearly 20 percent, up from less than 12 percent four years ago.
The first official results with more than 25 percent of the vote counted showed about 47 percent for United Russia, compared to 64 percent in 2007. This was in line with an exit poll conducted by the VTsIOM polling agency that had United Russia tallying 48.5 percent and another done by the FOM polling agency that had it winning 46 percent of the vote. The two polls were reported by the two state television channels.
Complete results were expected at 0600 GMT Monday (1 a.m. EDT).
Only seven parties were 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.
Russia's only independent election monitoring group, Golos, has come under strong official pressure and its website was incapacitated by hackers on Sunday. Golos was still able to field more than 2,000 observers and they reported numerous violations, director Liliya Shibanova said.
She said many of the violations involved absentee ballots, including so-called "cruise voting" where people with the ballots are bused to multiple polling stations. In the Volga River city of Samara, observers and election commission members from opposition parties were barred from verifying that the ballot boxes were properly sealed at all polling stations, Shibanova said.
In Moscow, several journalists, including a photographer for The Associated Press, were briefly detained after taking pictures at a polling station.
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."
A few dozen activists of the Left Front opposition group tried to stage an unsanctioned protest just outside 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 Alexei Venediktov said in a Twitter post. The site was back up in the evening.
Golos, which is funded by U.S. and European grants, has come under heavy 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 automated calls that effectively blocked it. Prior to the vote, many of the group's activists were visited by security agents, while Shibanova was held for 12 hours at an airport and forced to hand over her laptop.
The group had compiled some 5,300 complaints of election-law violations ahead of the vote, most of which were linked to United Russia. Roughly a third of the complainants ' mostly government workers and students ' said their employers and professors were pressuring them to vote for the party.
Jim Heintz, Nataliya Vasilyeva and Vladimir Isachenkov contributed to this report.