MOSCOW – Vladimir Putin’s ruling party Monday barely won half the vote in legislative polls marred by claims of dirty tricks by the authorities, a major setback for the Russian strongman ahead of his planned Kremlin comeback. United Russia won a humiliatingly low 49.79 percent of the vote, the central election commission said in results based on 92 percent of polling stations, dramatically losing the so-called “constitutional majority” it needs to change the constitution unchallenged. The Communist Party came in second with 19.15 percent, up from 12 percent it received in 2007. The ruling party’s poor showing comes after the Russian strongman announced in September he planned to reclaim his old Kremlin job in March presidential polls, reflecting that more and more Russians may be growing disillusioned with his 11-year rule. The outcome marks a stunning reversal from the last parliamentary elections in 2007 when United Russia secured a landslide majority of 64.3 percent and won 315 seats in the lower house of parliament, the 450-seat State Duma. Veteran Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov said the vote was a wake-up call for the Kremlin showing it would have to make room for the opposition in parliament. “People have refused to give credence to the authorities, and in the future we will have a dramatically new political layout in the Duma,” he said. “The ruling power will have to look for partners,” said Kommersant broadsheet on Monday, while Vedomosti business daily acidly called United Russia “the minority party.” Putin sought to put a brave face on the polling results, saying they reflected the state of affairs in the country. “Based on these results, we will be able to ensure the stable development of our country,” he said in a terse speech standing alongside President Dmitry Medvedev at United Russia campaign headquarters. Medvedev conceded United Russia would have to share power and “enter into coalition agreements,” saying the election results showed Russian “democracy in action.” He rejected the claims of foul play by the authorities. Both Putin and Medvedev had said before the vote they did not want to see a squabbling parliament like in the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin.
Opponents and Moscow-based Western-funded observer group Golos had said the vote was marred by unprecedented violations as the ruling elite downed websites and harassed monitors to limit dissent. Putin, who has dominated Russia since 2000, is widely expected to win back his old Kremlin job in March presidential elections after his four-year stint as prime minister. His protege Medvedev is set to step aside and become prime minister, in a job swap that the two men hope will determine Russia’s political future and stability for years to come. The populist A Just Russia party had 13.13 percent of the vote while the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party was fourth with 11.66 percent. “The authorities are losing trust — it’s a new situation for them,” said Sergei Lukashevsky, head of the Andrei Sakharov Museum and Public Center. “The regime’s ideology is exhausting itself.” Maria Lipman, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, said the ruling party’s poor showing will present the Kremlin with a choice. “What to do next?” she said. “To tighten the screws or get adjusted to a new reality in which United Russia no longer has an unchallenged monopoly?” Moscow Echo radio, citing senior United Russia sources, reported that United Russia chairman Boris Gryzlov would resign his post as Duma speaker, in a sign that the Kremlin will draw lessons from Sunday’s vote. The party refused to confirm the report.