MOSCOW -- The Kremlin-backed ruling United Russia party attracted fewer votes than five years earlier, but maintained its constitutional majority in Russia's lower house of parliament in an election marred by growing allegations of voting irregularities and ballot tampering.
An independent monitoring agency called the three-day vote over the weekend "one of the dirtiest" elections in Russian history, while Germany on September 20 said the allegations must be taken "seriously and should be clarified" and the European Union denounced the climate of "intimidation" in the run up to the vote.
The election is widely seen as an important part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to cement his grip on power ahead of a possible run in the 2024 presidential election, making control of the State Duma key.
The vote also has been marred by the lack of a significant opposition presence after authorities declared organizations linked to the imprisoned opposition politician Aleksei Navalny to be “extremist,” effectively barring anyone from his network from running.
For the first time since 1993, election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) were not present due to limitations imposed by Russian authorities.
With 99.9 percent of ballots counted, the Central Election Commission said early on September 20 that United Russia, which backs Putin, had won nearly 50 percent of the vote for the 225 seats apportioned among parties in the State Duma.
Its closest rival, the Communist Party, had just under 19 percent, and the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party received 7.5 percent. Two other parties, A Just Russia and a newcomer party, New People, had received 7.45 percent and 5.33 percent, respectively.
Another 225 lawmakers are chosen directly by voters, and the results showed United Russia candidates leading in 198 of those races.
With United Russia securing an emphatic parliamentary majority, Putin thanked Russians for their trust.
"Special words of thanks, of course, I want to address to the citizens of Russia, to thank you for your trust, dear friends," Putin said on state-run TV on September 20.
United Russia Secretary-General Andrei Turchak said the party expected to win 120 seats from the party-list voting and 195 single-mandate races -- giving it 315 of the Duma's 450 seats and a comfortable two-thirds majority that continues to allow it to change the constitution.
"This is truly unbelievable," said a Navalny spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh. "I remember the feeling in 2011 when they stole the election. The same is happening right now."
The chairwoman of the Central Election Commission, Ella Pamfilova, confirmed at a briefing that United Russia has retained the so-called constitutional majority in the parliament, or two-thirds of the 450 seats required for a party to be allowed to make changes to the country's constitution.
According to Pamfilova, candidates from three other parties each won a seat, meaning eight political parties will be represented in the State Duma. Voter turnout stood at 51.68 percent, Pamfilova said.
Allies of Navalny said the fact that an opposition Smart Voting app to counter ruling party cheating ran into troubles means the authorities were compelled to "admit defeat or to falsify, in front of everyone, absolutely brazenly."
One of Navalny’s top lieutenants, Leonid Volkov, suggested that authorities planned to manipulate online voting in favor of ruling party candidates, particularly in liberal-leaning cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg.
A co-chairman of the independent election-monitoring group Golos said 78,000 more electronic votes had appeared in the officials' Moscow tally than were issued, highlighting the "shame" of what he called the "shame" of "one of the dirtiest" elections in Russian history.
Golos's Roman Udot insisted that the results in Moscow -- or at least the electronic votes -- should be nullified as a result.
Some 200 Communist protesters who felt cheated gathered for a demonstration in Moscow in the evening on September 20 as police looked on.
"It's a disgrace and a real crime!" Communist candidate Valery Rashkin told the crowd, saying his party would keep protesting until what he called the falsified electronic Moscow results were overturned. Rashkin said the protesters would be back on September 25.
European Union foreign affairs spokesman Peter Stano criticized the lack of international independent election monitors and "an atmosphere of intimidation of all the critical independent voices" in the run-up to the voting, which was held alongside elections for regional governors and local legislative assemblies.
The U.S. State Department said that Russia prevented citizens from exercising their civil and political rights and the United States does not recognize the results of the vote on Ukrainian territory.
"The September 17-19 Duma elections in the Russian Federation took place under conditions not conducive to free and fair proceedings," department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement. "We do not recognize holding elections for the Russian Duma on sovereign Ukrainian territory and reaffirm our unwavering support for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine."
Late last week, Ukrainian officials denounced Russia for also holding the parliamentary elections in Crimea, a peninsula annexed by Moscow in 2014.
Britain said the elections represented a serious setback for democratic freedom and were at odds with Russia's international commitments.
"The measures taken by the Russian authorities to marginalize civil society, silence independent media, and exclude genuine opposition candidates from participating in the elections undermine political plurality and are at odds with the international commitments that Russia has signed up to," Britain's Foreign Office said in a statement.
And German government spokesman Steffen Seibert told reporters in Berlin that allegations of fraud must be taken seriously and fully investigated.
"There are accusations from election observers, from Russian opposition members who speak of massive irregularities," Seibert said on September 20, adding that "these must be taken seriously and should be clarified."
Half of the Duma’s 450 seats are apportioned by party lists, while the other half are chosen in individual races. Election officials said United Russia candidates led in 194 single-seat constituencies out of 225 with a little over 72 percent of the votes counted.
United Russia, which currently holds 334 seats in the Duma, is looking to keep its supermajority in the legislature. But the party is deeply unpopular, and surveys from independent pollsters have shown its approval rating at the lowest level in the two decades since it was first established.
In the last national vote in 2016, United Russia won just over 54 percent of the vote.
Apathy also appeared to hit as Russian voters grow increasingly cynical about how free and fair elections are in the country. Turnout in the election was around 45 percent, the Central Election Commission said.
In addition to being a test for United Russia, the vote was also a major hurdle for Navalny, the jailed corruption crusader whose allies had invested heavily in their Smart Voting strategy, aimed at eroding United Russia’s stranglehold on politics.
Most of the candidates endorsed by Smart Voting were from the Communist Party -- even though it and two other parties in the Duma rarely vote against majority initiatives or those explicitly lobbied for by the Kremlin.
WATCH: How Navalny's 'Smart Voting' Works
Despite official efforts to undermine Smart Voting, initial election results suggested the initiative may have had an impact, with support for the Communists growing from 13.3 percent in the 2016 parliamentary elections.
"We forced them to either admit defeat or to falsify, in front of everyone, absolutely brazenly, without any shame. To admit moral bankruptcy," Volkov, the Navalny ally, said of the Smart Voting strategy in a live YouTube event after the voting.
In recent months, authorities have unleashed a sweeping crackdown against Navalny’s political network, with many of his allies fleeing the country, put under house arrest, or detained.
Navalny himself is in prison serving a 2 1/2-year sentence on charges his allies say were politically motivated. He was arrested in January upon returning from Germany where he had been recuperating from a nerve-agent poisoning he blamed on the Kremlin.
As the vote kicked off on September 17, however, Navalny’s Smart Voting app disappeared from the Apple and Google online stores. Telegram, a popular messaging app and a key tool for Navalny’s team to get out its messaging, also removed a Smart Voting bot. YouTube -- which is owned by Google -- also took down a video that contained the names of candidates they had endorsed. And Google also blocked access to a Navalny Google Doc, which circulated a text copy of all the Smart Voting endorsed candidates.
About 50 websites run by Navalny have also been blocked, including the one dedicated to Smart Voting.
The vote, which is being held alongside elections for regional governors and local legislative assemblies, took place amid widespread reports of irregularities.
Gennady Zyuganov, who heads the Communist Party, alleged widespread violations and called on election officials to respond to reports of “a number of absolutely egregious facts,” including ballot-box stuffing.
RIA Novosti reported that the Moscow mayor's office had refused a request from the Communist Party to hold rallies on September 20, 21, and 25 to protest the results, citing safety measures over the coronavirus pandemic.
Across the country, there were reports of ballot-box stuffing and “carousel voting” -- where voters are bused into multiple polling stations as an organized group.
Voters interviewed in one Moscow district expressed skepticism toward both the election results and the opposition's chances of influencing them through Smart Voting.
"You can see what's happening with our elections. I don't trust them," said Tatiana Bochkova, a journalist who voted in Moscow's 208th district for Sergei Mitrokhin, a politician for the liberal Yabloko party whom she had backed in previous elections.
"I didn't use Smart Voting, because I don't believe it can really work," Bochkova told RFE/RL.
Sergei Ross, a lawyer who has previously defended opposition activists, said he had followed the recommendation of Smart Voting and chosen Mitrokhin.
He said he doesn't trust the elections but believes that vote-rigging will not be as widespread in Moscow as in other parts of the country.
"The opposition now has more tools at its disposal, like Smart Voting," he said. "But the state does, too, and it's using them against the press and independent journalists."
Vadim, a 63-year-old theater historian at a Moscow academy, said he had voted for the newly created political party, New People, because of its promise to introduce fresh faces into politics.
He broadly trusts the elections because the low turnout makes it harder for authorities to falsify them, he said. He did not agree with critics who said New People was one of several parties launched in cooperation with the Kremlin to create the illusion of real competition.
"We all know officials steal and don't represent the interests of the people. But I think we must vote anyway, to express our position," Vadim said.
In the central Volga region of Chuvashia, the local Communist Party accused a precinct boss of trying to eat part of an official election tally sheet, in a bid to cover a fraudulent tally.
In the North Caucasus, where voter fraud and irregularities are commonplace, four separate precincts in the Daghestan and Ingushetia regions reported 100 percent turnout -- in one case, just a few hours into the first day of voting.
Authorities said they spread the election over three days to prevent crowding because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Critics, however, say the longer period offers ample opportunities for manipulation and engineering a desired outcome.
In St. Petersburg, an independent election-monitoring group reported that a candidate from the opposition Yabloko party was beaten by police officers at one polling station on September 19 after he claimed that piles of unused ballots had disappeared.
A video shared by activists appeared to show at least three officers manhandling Nikita Sorokin, who is running for the local legislative assembly. Several other monitors are also seen being forcibly removed from the site.
Golos earlier reported some 2,000 procedural violations as well as lax measures for guarding ballots at polling stations, people voting multiple times, as well as dozens of reported incidents of ballot stuffing.