Despite widespread reports of electoral fraud, Vladimir Putin's United Russia Party failed to secure the resounding victory it had hoped for in yesterday's parliamentary elections, early results indicated.
With 40 per cent of the votes counted last night, Russia's Central Election Committee said that United Russia had received just under 50 per cent in elections that were seen as a test of popularity ahead of a presidential vote next March, when Mr Putin intends to return to the Kremlin after a four-year stint as Prime Minister. Official exit polls gave similar results.
Despite endless positive media coverage on state-controlled television, reports of ballot stuffing and multiple voting, and pressure on public sector workers to vote for United Russia, the party's support dropped significantly from the 64 per cent it received in 2007.
"It's a total disaster for the party of power," said political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky, shortly after the first exit polls were announced. Reports of foul play designed to boost results for Mr Putin's party were widespread. Golos, the country's only independent election monitoring organisation, kept a spreadsheet with thousands of violations across the country.
There was a claim – backed by a video – that one polling station in Moscow had pens that used erasable ink, meaning that ballots could in theory be tampered with after voting.
In the city of Bryansk, Golos claimed that its election observer had been locked in the toilet at a polling station and not let out. Elsewhere, a Russian journalist went undercover on a bus full of Kremlin youth activists who were being ferried around Moscow to vote, repeatedly, at different polling stations, in favour of United Russia. Known as a "carousel", this practice was the talking point of the day, with claims that it was widespread, adding thousands of extra votes for Mr Putin's party.
A number of protests were held throughout the day by small groups of opposition activists in various cities, but most of them were swiftly broken up. Several opposition leaders were arrested for taking part in an unsanctioned protest in Moscow. Police said that they had detained about 100 protesters in the capital.
In a further sign of pressure on the opposition, what appeared to be coordinated hacker attacks put several liberal and opposition media websites out of service, including that of Russia's best known radio station, Ekho Moskvy, and several internet news sites. Also hit was the website of Golos, which has been subjected to a smear campaign in state-controlled media.
At a school in central Moscow, there was a steady stream of voters. For Tatyana Misharina, 69, her vote for United Russia was "a way to say thank you to Putin for making things better". She said. "He's an honest man and he works hard to make Russia as great as it used to be." Her sentiments were rare among voters. Many elderly said they had voted for the Communists, while younger voters tended to say they had picked one of the opposition parties, based on an "anyone but United Russia" sentiment.