MOSCOW -- International election observers have said Russia’s parliamentary polls were marred by violations and were tilted in favor of the ruling United Russia party, which managed to cling onto a majority in the December 4 polls despite dwindling popularity.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said at a press conference in Moscow on December 5 that the vote exhibited “limited political competition and a lack of fairness.”
"Our main concern is the lack of separation between the governing party and the state," said Heidi Tagliavini, the head of the election observation mission of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. "This led to a narrow political competition, where a number of political parties weren't even allowed to run in the elections. And it contributed to an electoral environment that lacked fairness and was clearly slanted in favor of the governing party."
The assessment increased the pressure on Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his inner circle, who appear to be still reeling from United Russia's disappointing showing.
With 96 percent of the vote counted, the Central Electoral Commission says United Russia garnered just under 50 percent of the vote, down from 64 percent in 2007.
Speaking on the sidelines of an international conference on Afghanistan in Bonn, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she had "serious concerns" about the conduct of the elections and that Russian voters deserved a full investigation of all reported irregularities.
Although the result is enough for United Russia to claim a slim majority -- 238 of the State Duma’s 450 seats -- the vote is seen as the clearest indication of public discontent over the political system Putin has built over the past decade. It is also seen as an ominous sign as he prepares to run in the presidential election in March.
And critics say the result would have been even worse for the ruling party had the election been free and fair.
Petros Efthymiou, the coordinator of the short-term observation mission for the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE to Russia, told reporters that the atmosphere surrounding the campaign unfairly favored United Russia.
“The contest was…slanted in favor of the ruling party, as evidenced by the lack of independence of the election administration, the partiality of most media, and the undue interference of state authorities at different levels,” Efthymiou said.
Efthymiou also noted violations on voting day itself, as well as in the vote count.
“The quality of the [vote] process deteriorated considerably during the count, which was characterized by frequent procedural violations and instances of apparent manipulations, including serious indications of ballot-box stuffing,” he said.
The opposition says United Russia’s results were greatly buoyed by “administrative resources” up to and through election day. Moreover, during the voting numerous liberal news outlets were made inaccessible by denial-of-service attacks.
Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov was quoted by Reuters as saying it was the “dirtiest” election since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
For example, exit polls on December 4 gave United Russia just 27 percent of the vote in Moscow, although the ruling party won more than double that, according to the official results.
Sergei Mironov, leader of A Just Russia, told journalists that he has refused to recognize the election results in St. Petersburg where his party is traditionally strong.
Dozens of YouTube videos appeared during the vote, purporting to capture electoral violations, including so-called "carousel voting" in which people are bused to vote at multiple polling stations.
But President Dmitry Medvedev, who heads the United Russia party list, said that he has seen these videos and was not struck by them.
Gazeta.ru quoted Medvedev as saying: “You can’t see anything on them...and they’re screaming about ‘carousels’ and ‘disgrace’….although, of course, we will have to investigate the electoral violations."
WATCH: Videos allegedly capture "carousel voting"
In Moscow, several thousand people attended a protest rally on Decem ber 5 against Putin. Opposition leader Boris Nemtsov told protesters that United Russia had massively falsified the result of the election.
"This is a crushing defeat for Putin and his party of swindlers and thieves -- a crushing defeat," he said. "Nobody believes in their 238 seats. Nobody believes in their 49.5 percent. We have thousands [of reports] of falsification facts, of 'carousel' voting, stuffed ballot boxes, and so on."
Meanwhile, the independent Golos election watchdog organization said on December 5 that it had received more than 1,500 complaints of electoral violations on election day, despite experiencing concerted harassment from authorities.
“The election campaign was extremely difficult and extremely unnerving," Golos chief Aleksandr Kynev told journalists on December 5. "I am really happy that, in spite of all the difficulties that Golos experienced in preparation for the elections, we were able to work effectively and monitor in a number of regions."
The Western-financed election observer was fined about $1,000 for an apparent breach of election protocol on December 2. On December 4, its website was inaccessible after it was hit by a prolonged hacker attack.
Overhaul In The Works?
Nevertheless, United Russia's results were disappointing and many observers expect the ruling party to undergo an overhaul. The radio station Ekho Moskvy cited unidentified United Russia sources as saying that its stalwart senior lawmaker, Boris Gryzlov, might vacate his post of speaker of the State Duma.
Meanwhile, other parties made significant gains.
The center-left A Just Russia – which appeared on the verge of being disbanded only three months ago -- was seen as the biggest victor -- finishing in third with 64 seats.
Mironov of A Just Russia told journalists he was happy with the overall result.
"We have won a certain third place. We have practically doubled our 2007 result," he said. "A Just Russia has confirmed its parliamentary status and, as we had expected, we have considerably increased our representation in the next State Duma."
The Communist Party also made big gains at the polls, winning 92 seats, while the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party took 56, up from 40 in the previous Duma.