MOSCOW -- The ruling United Russia party has suffered a dramatic drop in support in national legislative elections but appears poised to hang onto its majority in the State Duma, albeit barely.
With 96 percent of votes counted, the Central Election Commission said United Russia had just under 50 percent of the vote, down from 64 percent in 2007.
This means the party is likely to have 238 seats in Russia's 450-seat State Duma lower house of parliament. It previously held 315 seats.
The Communist Party is polling second with 19.2 percent of the vote, and is projected to have 92 seats.
The centrist A Just Russia looks set to garner 13.2 percent support (64 seats), and Vladimir Zhirinovsky's nationalist Liberal Democrats should get 11.7 percent (56 seats).
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Three parties -- Yabloko, Right Cause, and the Patriots of Russia -- appear to have failed to clear the 7 percent barrier required to win seats in the Duma.
If the actual results match these projections, it will mark a serious embarrassment for the ruling party. United Russia has clearly lost the two-thirds' supermajority it enjoyed in the outgoing Duma.
'Democracy In Action'
Standing alongside President Dmitry Medvedev in a live televised address, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin tried to put a brave face on the results.
"Based on these results, we will be able to ensure the stable development of our country," Putin said.
Putin, who is virtually assured victory in presidential elections in March, made no specific mention of United Russia's fall in support.
Medvedev, who formally led United Russia's party list and who is expected to become prime minister when his presidential term ends next year, said the election results showed Russian "democracy in action."
Earlier in the evening, Boris Gryzlov, speaker of the outgoing Duma and chairman of United Russia's Supreme Council, claimed victory in remarks to reporters.
"United Russia has won," he said. "This result that we have achieved is very significant.
"We are watching and hope that we shall get a majority of the mandates in the Duma," Gryzlov added. "We received support from the electorate...We can say that United Russia remains the ruling party."
A separate exit poll conducted by the Public Opinion Foundation showed United Russia winning just 46 percent of the vote, with the party holding just 220 seats in the Duma, less than a simple majority.
'New Political Reality'
In remarks reported by Reuters, Communist lawmaker Sergei Obukhov said, "Russia has a new political reality, even if they rewrite everything."
Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov echoed these sentiments in remarks to reporters.
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"The citizens of our country have turned away from the ruling party's course," he said. "Despite attempts to break public opinion, the country refused to support United Russia, and in fact it is defeated in almost every city across the country."
Speaking to RFE/RL, Pavel Salin, an analyst at the Moscow-based Center for Political Assessments, said the results show that society is getting increasingly restive.
"This is not a total defeat for United Russia, but it is a major alarm bell. Not for United Russia but for the authorities in general," Salin said. "A mood of protest has taken shape in society and this mood can be colonized by the opposition parties."
Salin added that the protest mood was illustrated by A Just Russia's surprisingly strong performance, which he called "the sensation of these elections," noting that the party "was on the verge of being disbanded" just a few months ago.
The atmosphere of protest, he said, will only grow in the coming years.
"If the authorities do not rebuild the political system, or at least modernize it, then I fear that in a couple of years we will be seeing this protest mood, not at the podium, but in the streets," Salin said. "By that time, it will be too late to think and change anything."
More than 100 people were detained at an unsanctioned opposition rally on central Moscow's Triumph Square. Demonstrators chanted "Shame!" and "Give us back our elections."
Another 70 people were detained at an unsanctioned rally in St. Petersburg.
Turnout for the election was just over 50 percent, according to the Central Electoral Commission, a sharp drop from the 2007 elections when 63.71 percent of the electorate turned out.
Opposition parties complained throughout the day of election irregularities in various parts of the country.
The Western-financed electoral watchdog group Golos
and two liberal media outlets -- the Echo Moskvy radio station and the online news portal Slon.ru -- were shut down by hackers.
Written by Tom Balmforth in Moscow and Brian Whitmore in Prague, with contributions from RFE/RL's Russian Service and agency reports