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Pro-Putin party wins parliamentary election amid low turnout

| Sunday, Sept. 18, 2016, 7:24 p.m.
Russian army soldiers line up to vote at a polling station during parliamentary elections outside St.Petersburg, Russia, Sunday, Sept. 18, 2016.
Russian army soldiers line up to vote at a polling station during parliamentary elections outside St.Petersburg, Russia, Sunday, Sept. 18, 2016.

MOSCOW — Allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin comfortably won a parliamentary election Sunday, but early indications were that turnout was low, suggesting a softening of enthusiasm for the ruling elite 18 months away from the next presidential election.

The ruling United Russia party, which Putin founded, won 44.5 percent in the vote, an exit poll showed, slightly down on the last election. But it was still enough to preserve the dominance of Putin's allies in the Duma, or lower house of parliament.

Putin, speaking to United Russia campaign staff a few minutes after polling stations closed, said the win showed voters still trusted the leadership despite an economic slowdown made worse by Western sanctions over Ukraine.

Putin's aides are likely to use the result, which leaves United Russia by far the biggest party, as a springboard for his campaign for re-election in 2018, though he has not confirmed that he will seek a new term.

“We can say with certainty that the party has achieved a very good result; it's won,” Putin said at the United Russia headquarters, where he arrived with his ally Dmitry Medvedev, who is prime minister and the party's leader.

Alluding to the spluttering economy, which is forecast to shrink this year by at least 0.3 percent, Putin said: “We know that life is hard for people, there are lots of problems, lots of unresolved problems. Nevertheless, we have this result.”

In the last election for the Duma, or lower house of parliament, in 2011, United Russia won 49 percent of the vote.

There were some reports of voting irregularities. Reuters reporters at one polling station witnessed several people casting their ballot, then coming back later and voting again. Election chiefs said were was so far no evidence of large-scale cheating.

After the last election, anger at ballot-rigging prompted large protests in Moscow, and the Kremlin will be anxious to avoid a repetition of that.

According to the exit poll, by state-run pollster VTsIOM, the populist LDPR party was in second place with 15.3 percent, the Communists were in third on 14.9 percent and the left-of-center Just Russia party was fourth with 8.1 percent.

All three of those parties tend to vote with United Russia on crunch issues in parliament, and avoid direct criticism of Putin.

With 11 percent of votes counted, the official results were broadly in line with the exit poll.

Election officials said that as of 18:00 Moscow time, two hours before polling stations in the capital closed, turnout was 39.4 percent, substantially down on the 60 percent turnout at the last parliamentary election.

There was evidence of voter apathy during the day Sunday as people went to polling stations across Russia's 11 times zones, stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Baltic Sea.

A taxi driver in Ufa, just over 840 miles east of Moscow, said that voting “was like urinating into a blocked toilet.”

“Why bother?” asked the man, who gave his first name as Ilysh.

Commenting on the turnout, Putin, at the United Russia campaign HQ, said it was “not as high as we saw in previous election campaigns, but it is high.”

United Russia is routinely depicted in a favorable light by state television. It also benefits from its association with 63-year-old Putin, who after 17 years in power as either president or prime minister, enjoys a personal approval rating of about 80 percent.

Many voters are convinced by the Kremlin narrative, frequently repeated on state TV, of the West using sanctions to try to wreck the economy in revenge for Moscow's seizure of Crimea, the Ukrainian region it annexed in 2014.

Yevgeny Korsak, a 65-year-old pensioner in the city of Saransk, 375 miles south-east of Moscow, said he had voted for United Russia “because it is strong and powerful.”

By contrast, liberal opposition politicians, who have just one sympathetic member in the Duma, complain they are starved of air time, vilified by state media, and their campaigns systematically disrupted by pro-Kremlin provocateurs. Pro-Kremlin politicians deny that charge.

The liberal opposition failed to get over the five percent threshold needed for party representation in the Duma, the exit poll showed. Some of their candidates could still make it into parliament in constituency races.

Putin has said it is too early to say if he will go for what would be a fourth presidential term in 2018. If he did and won, he would be in power until 2024, longer than Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.

The election is the first time that voters in Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014, are helping decide the makeup of the Duma.

That has angered the Ukrainian government and there were scuffles between Ukrainian nationalists and police outside the Russian embassy in Kiev on Sunday after a few nationalists tried to stop Russian citizens from voting there.

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