Sullen voters hand triumph to Putin's United Russia in Duma elections

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Russian voters, showing a mixture of resignation, apathy and cynicism, gave President Vladimir Putin the electoral victory he had hoped for yesterday, making United Russia the biggest party by far in the new parliament. But any ambitions Mr Putin might have had for introducing faster economic and judicial reforms could be heavily circumscribed by the unexpectedly strong showing of the nationalist right.

The two nationalist parties ­ the Liberal Democrat party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and a newly formed left-patriotic party, Rodina (Homeland) ­ took more than 20 per cent of the vote between them to become the main opposition. Mr Zhirinovsky almost tripled his vote compared with the last elections in 1999. Initial results suggested he could overtake the Communists to claim second place with as much as 15 per cent. Exit polls showed support for the Communist Party had halved.

In a major setback for reformists, neither of the parties advocating faster economic change ­ Yabloko and the free-market Union of Right Forces (SPS) looked likely to be represented in the new parliament. And although United Russia took 36 per cent of the vote, it is now ranged against an anti-reform opposition of almost equal strength.

The election had been seen as a barometer of Russian opinion 10 years after the election of the first post-Soviet Russian parliament and a gauge of Mr Putin's authority as he prepares to stand for a second term in March. What sort of policies Mr Putin now pursues will depend on which parties he and United Russia are able to co-opt as allies in the Duma. The likely absence of the free-market parties appears to make some compromises with the patriotic right inevitable.

Heavy snowfalls across much of Russia may have reduced the turnout, which was put at around 54 per cent nationwide, but much less in some areas of the far north. In St Petersburg and the north-west of the country, where blizzard conditions prevailed in the second half of the day, the turnout plummeted. But the generally unenthusiastic and negative mood of voters was seen as the main explanation for the shift.

There was highly visible security at polling stations, after Friday's suicide-bombing of a commuter train in the northern Caucasus, which was blamed on Chechen separatists.

Russian news agencies said that more than 26,000 police and Interior Ministry troops had been deployed. In Moscow, at least, they were a conspicuous, but largely passive, presence at the entrance to polling stations. X-ray machines were set up in some stations; others were checked by teams of sniffer-dogs. In the event, the voting passed off peacefully and the only incidents were minor: an egg thrown at the Prime Minister when he voted in Moscow; a disaffected voter yelling that the elections were "a farce", and a drunken farmer who drove his tractor into a polling station in Siberia.

Russian television showed Mr Putin and his wife voting at their local polling station in Moscow. They were both shown being treated like ordinary citizens, having to show their identity documents before being issued with ballot papers. Lyudmila Putin explained their early arrival ­ minutes after the polls opened at 8am ­ saying her husband's labrador had produced eight puppies overnight and he had played midwife. Mr Putin declined to say how he voted.

While United Russia far outperformed its rivals, first results ­ released at 1am local time ­ suggested that despite manipulating the state media in its favour, United Russia had actually lost support since 1999. Then, there were two centrist parties that joined forces before the last parliamentary elections to form United Russia and they took 41 per cent of the vote between them. Now constituted as a single party, United Russia has about 36 per cent.

The elections were contested by 23 parties, from which voters had to choose one. A second ballot paper contained the names of the candidates for constituency MP. Half of the 450 MPs are elected from party lists, according to the proportion of votes won, the other half are MPs directly elected from the 225 constituencies. Only those parties which gain more than 5 per cent of the vote are able to nominate MPs.

In an innovation, Russian citizens living abroad, about one million people, were also encouraged to vote in their home country's parliamentary elections for the first time.

Surprise success

The big surprise of the election was the showing of Rodina (Homeland), a party formed only three months ago. Rodina is led by Sergei Glazyev, a former supporter of Boris Yeltsin who defected to the Communists after the storming of the Russian parliament in 1993, and left them to form Rodina. His career may appear inconsistent, even opportunistic, but it is fully comprehensible to Russians, who have experienced all the upheavals of the past 20 years.

The party's co-leader is Dmitri Rogozin, a voluble salt-of-the-earth politician. In the last parliament, he chaired the foreign affairs committee, where he was known for a Russia-first approach to foreign affairs, including a visceral dislike of the European Union and all its works.

There are Russian political observers who insist that Rodina is not a real party, but a construct, devised by a particularly shrewd group of political manipulators (read: the Russian security services) with a view to taking votes from the Communist Party and destroying it as an opposition force.

Their view is that Rodina can be dissolved, or neutralised, as quickly as it was created, and that it will ally itself with United Russia in crucial votes.