For the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there is only one party at work in Russia's legislature.
The ruling United Russia party and the Kremlin are scrambling after lawmakers from the other three factions represented in the Duma walked out of the chamber on October 14 to protest alleged falsification of last weekend's regional elections.
Those polls brought sweeping victories for United Russia -- and widespread allegations of blatant fraud, including ballot-box stuffing and intimidation by police.
The walkout was initiated by the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), headed by firebrand nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, but deputies of the Communist Party and A Just Russia also left the chamber after United Russia tried to stifle discussion of the disputed vote.
Communist Party faction member Nikolai Kharitonov told journalists after the walkout that his party is demanding a parliamentary inquiry into the alleged fraud and a recount.
"You can see that we have different beliefs -- the LDPR, A Just Russia, the Communist Party -- but we walked out of that chamber and we are not going back," Kharitonov said. "[We need] a parliamentary inquiry. I demand that already today two deputies of each faction should go back to the regions and recount the votes. I'm sure they will find all" the irregularities, he said.
In public, the ruling party has refused to budge. Duma speaker and United Russia Higher Council Chairman Boris Gryzlov dismissed the walkout as “the continuation of sabotage” aimed at “disrupting political stability.”
United Russia Secretary Viktor Volodin also rejected allegations of fraud in comments to Reuters. "Politicians have to take losses on the chin and turn them around, not behave as they did today. If they do, they'll lose even more votes," Volodin said.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the unofficial head of United Russia, rejected the opposition claims.
"If someone has doubts about the fairness of the elections, they should go to court and prove it, because otherwise they will keep saying endlessly that the elections were unfair, that they were bad. They should provide evidence," Putin said during a visit to Beijing.
President Dmitry Medvedev has said the October 11 elections had been conducted in accordance with the law during an earlier meeting with United Russia leaders.
Then on October 15, Reuters quoted a Kremlin spokeswoman as saying Medvedev's views have not changed since he said United Russia's victory was evidence of its "legal and moral right" to run the regions.
"The president's position has not changed," Natalya Timakova told reporters, adding that Medvedev might meet with party leaders next week.Seeking Reconciliation
Russian media are reporting that the Kremlin has been reaching out to the wayward lawmakers. Reports say Medvedev has spoken to the heads of the three factions by telephone.
The Communists insist they will not return to the chamber until they have met with Medvedev face to face.
Party official Ivan Melnikov told RFE/RL that "something very serious" would have to happen for the Communists to return.
Interfax reported on October 15 presidential press secretary Natalya Timakova as saying Medvedev might meet with the Duma leaders next week. But she said Medvedev's opinion of the legitimacy of the elections remains unchanged.
The president is scheduled to hold a regular meeting with Duma faction heads on October 27.
Earlier, the LDPR had advanced even more far-reaching demands, calling on all the results of the October 11 voting to be annulled and for holding new elections in March 2010. The party also demanded the removal of all governors who have served more than 10 years and the head of the Central Election Commission, as well as for the reformation of all election commissions across the country.
There's been little public outrage over the alleged vote fraud. State-controlled television ignored the fraud allegations but gave considerable coverage to the Duma walkout.
In the southern city of Astrakhan, several dozen people set up tents outside the election commission in protest.
Popular Duma Deputy Oleg Shein of A Just Russia was expected to provide stiff competition to the United Russia incumbent but was soundly defeated according to official results.
Shein told RFE/RL's Russian Service that a "criminal group" had stolen the election.
"This is a group headed by [incumbent MayorSergei] Bozhenov which, during the election campaign resorted to kidnapping people, resorted to going around at night and slitting the tires of dozens of buses bearing our advertising," Shein said. "People who hung our banners on their balconies had their apartments broken into during the night. One of our comrades was attacked with a Molotov cocktail in his apartment -- a campaign manager. There were many cases of people being beaten on election day."
As the standoff continued, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov said he hoped the public would rally to support the defiant deputies.
"Possibly these elections will be the final straw, and I hope the media cover this properly and we'll get to the point where there is at least basic democracy in this country, not to mention normal dialogue and observation of the law," Zyuganov said.
Some analysts say the crisis is the result of a conflict inside the Kremlin, possibly between first deputy chief of staff Vladislav Surkov and chief of staff Sergei Naryshkin.
Earlier media reports had speculated that Medvedev intends to replace Naryshkin -- a close ally of Putin's -- with Surkov, who oversees domestic politics for the Kremlin.
Observers say the Duma protest may lead to the removal of some regional leaders responsible for carrying out the falsifications or of Central Election Commission head Vladimir Churov. But it's unlikely the Kremlin will overturn the election results or concede the overall system is undemocratic.RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report