SOCHI (Reuters) -- Russia's main pro- Kremlin party was set for a resounding victory in a mayoral election in the Olympic city of Sochi, provisional results showed on April 27, in what rivals said marked a new low for the country's democracy.
The vote in the 2014 Winter Olympics host city was widely seen as a test of President Dmitry Medvedev's recent pledges to strengthen Russian democracy, which critics say was undermined by his predecessor Vladimir Putin, now prime minister.
The two leading opposition candidates said early results that gave Kremlin-backed incumbent Anatoly Pakhomov 77 percent of the vote confirmed their suspicions that the election was skewed.
"Democracy is not moving forward, it is going backwards," Yury Dzaganiya, candidate for the opposition Communist Party, told Reuters in a telephone interview. "Russia is turning into a dictatorship of the ruling class."
The head of the city election commission, Yury Rykov, rejected the criticism, saying that the opposition was complaining to divert attention from its own failures.
With 67 percent of the votes counted, Pakhomov of the United Russia party had won 77 percent of the vote, a spokeswoman for the city election commission said. Leading Russian liberal Boris Nemtsov was second on 13.5 percent and Dzaganiya third on 6.6 percent. The three remaining candidates scored less than 2 percent each.
With a state budget of $6 billion, the 2014 Games in Russia's most popular seaside resort are Putin's pet project. The budget, and the significance of the Olympics, will give the victor considerable political influence in Russia.
Dzaganiya and Nemtsov said United Russia had used loosely regulated early-voting ballot papers to force state workers to vote for Pakhomov. They said the Sochi campaign had used the tactic, long deployed in Russian elections, on a massive scale.
"These results suggest over 90 percent of early votes were for Pakhomov. It's like North Korea," Nemtsov said. "We are preparing legal action against the result."
The two opposition candidates said Pakhomov monopolised the media in Sochi by dominating the local news while banning all political posters and paid-for television campaign ads.
Local United Russia official Vyacheslav Volodin was quoted by state news agency RIA Novosti as declaring victory on behalf of Pakhomov.
An exit poll organised by Nemtsov said Pakhomov secured only 46.5 percent of the vote, just short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a second-round run-off against Nemtsov. Nemtsov scored 35.2 percent while Dzaganiya scored 15.4, the poll said.
Final results were due early on April 27 in the contest which Kremlin chief Medvedev described as "a full-fledged political struggle."
"The more striking these events are, the better it is for our electoral system, for democracy in Russia," he told opposition newspaper "Novaya Gazeta" this month.