Leaders of Russia's main pro-Kremlin party say their overwhelming victory in local elections across the country shows Russians support the authorities. But observers say the results are unsurprising because the vote was fixed.
Voting for regional legislatures, mayors, and other local offices took place in 77 of the country's 84 regions on October 10. Preliminary results show Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's United Russia winning an average of 60 percent in elections, an increase from results in elections last March, which gave United Russia about 50 percent.
State Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov: "We've done everything right in the last four to five years."
Supporters of United Russia say that's a good indication of voter sentiment ahead of national parliamentary elections next year. Parliamentary speaker Boris Gryzlov, one of United Russia's leaders, said the election showed Russians approve of the authorities' work.
"The fact that United Russia's results in each region were significantly higher than in the last elections means we've done everything right in the last four to five years," Gryzlov said.
The authorities have been keen to show support following a public outcry over massive falsifications in the elections last March, which raised a public outcry and promises from the Kremlin to reform the country's voting system.
The Communist Party criticized the elections. But Russian television showed party leader Gennady Zyuganov, who helped lead a brief protest walkout in March, saying his party was happy with the results this time.
"There was extraordinary interest in the elections on all levels of society," Zyuganov said, "and we saw many new young, deserving candidates."
Despite the boost for United Russia, Central Election Commission chief Vladimir Churov today said the elections also raised the fortunes of parties not represented in the national parliament, the State Duma.
"In March, three parties that are not represented in parliament received a total of 27 mandates in local elections. This time, they will receive at least 167 mandates," Churov said.
Officials are seizing on the elections' results in the wake of a disastrous summer, when a record heat wave sparked forest fires that swept across Russia, choking the capital in smog, destroying crops, and pushing up prices for staples such as wheat.
But Kremlin critics say the outcome of the vote is far from surprising because the authorities fixed the result.
Grigory Melkoniants of Golos, Russia's only independent elections monitoring organization, told RFE/RL's Russian Service that the voting was no less "dirty" than the elections in March.
"We recorded a whole series of violations on all levels of the elections," Melkoniants said, "from the moment the campaign began to the counting of the votes, from buying votes to ballot-stuffing."
Malkoniants said journalists and human rights activists faced pressure from the authorities during the campaign, and that independent candidates were often refused registration. He said on voting day, large groups of voters were driven to multiple ballot stations, especially in the regions of Novosibirsk and Cheliabinsk. Golos recorded video footage of people being paid for their votes.
Melkoniants said factory bosses in the region of Tatarstan and elsewhere pressured their employees to vote for United Russia. University students were also forced to show they voted for the pro-Kremlin party by signing their names on lists.
He said there's been no indication elections have improved since President Dmitry Medvedev replaced Putin as president in what observers said was a rigged election in 2008. Most Russians believe Putin remains the country's supreme leader since his handpicked successor took over, and that he wants to return to the presidency in the next election in 2012.
written by Gregory Feifer, with contributions from RFE/RL's Russian Service