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Polls Close In Russia Amid Fraud Allegations

Children wait as their parents vote in ballot booths at a polling station in Ivanovo
Polls have closed in Russia's regional elections with the ruling United Russia and the opposition accusing each other of fraud.

Russians went to the polls in 76 of the country's 83 regions on March 14 to elect mayors and town councils in a vote that was seen as a test of President Dmitry Medvedev's commitment to open up the country's political system.

Shortly after the polls closed, Vyacheslav Timchenko, a lawmaker from United Russia, issued a statement decrying the "shockingly large number of violations" committed by the Communists, the right-wing Liberal Democrats and A Just Russia, a left-leaning party that is generally supportive of the Kremlin.

"These are very dirty elections... One gets the impression that certain opposition parties have taken the president's call for greater democratization and electoral development as an excuse to break the law," Timchenko said in the statement.

Earlier in the day, the Communists claimed that United Russia, which rules most of the country's regions virtually uncontested, was abusing its authority in the Krasnodar mayoral elections by busing police cadets to vote for the party's candidate in districts where they were not registered.

Russia's main independent elections watchdog, Golos, also reported irregularities in many regions, including allegations that factory workers in Yekaterinburg were being pressured by their employers to vote for United Russia.

The elections come half way through President Dmitry Medvedev's four year term as he struggles to demonstrate progress on a pledge to loosen the tight control of the political system introduced during Vladimir Putin's eight years in the Kremlin.

Unified Russia was accused of widespread fraud when it scored big wins in regional elections in October, causing the Communists, the Liberal Democrats, and A Just Russia to stage a brief walk out in the State Duma, the lower chamber of parliament.

Critics say the March 14 vote was marred in advance by the barring of candidates from the liberal and pro-Western Yabloko party from two regional polls after officials ruled several thousand voter signatures required to get the party on the ballot were invalid.

In the run up to the elections Vyachaslav Karyakin, deputy head of Golos in Yekaterinburg predicted that the election would be flawed.

"In these conditions, a certain percentage of the electorate simply have no reason to go to the polls," Karyakin said. "None of the parties on the ballot represents their interest and the elections are conducted between the bad and horrible."

Official turnout figures are not yet available, but voter apathy was evident before the polls opened. In the run-up to the elections in Yekaterinburg, Russia's fifth largest city, Elizaveta, an elderly resident who did not give her last name, told Reuters that she was not planning to vote at all.

"It will be better if there are fewer of them," she said, referring to politicians. "They are the slaves of the people and the slaves, unfortunately, live better than ordinary people."

Alexei Ivchenko, 46, a taxi driver in Yekaterinburg said he voted for A Just Russia party as a protest. "Nothing will change, it's almost like it was under the Communists," Ivchenko said.

compiled from agency reports