| MOSCOW/SARANSK, Russia
MOSCOW/SARANSK, Russia The ruling United Russia party won 44.5 percent in a parliamentary election on Sunday, an exit poll showed, slightly down on the last election but still enough to preserve the dominance of President Vladimir Putin’s allies in parliament.
The nationalist LDPR party was in second place with 15.3 percent, according to the exit poll by state-run pollster VTsIOM. The Communists were in third on 14.9 percent and the Just Russia party was fourth with 8.1 percent.
Liberal opposition parties, the only grouping openly critical of Putin, failed to get over the five percent threshold needed for party representation, the exit poll showed. Some of their candidates could still make it into parliament in constituency races.
In the last election for the Duma, or lower house of parliament, in 2011, United Russia won 49 percent of the vote. The vote this time around is being seen as a dry run for Putin’s expected presidential campaign in 2018.
It is also a test of how well the Kremlin can oversee trouble-free elections. After the 2011 election, allegations of ballot-rigging sparked big protests against Putin in the capital.
Voting got under way at 2000 GMT on Saturday on Russia’s Chukotka Peninsula across the Bering Strait from Alaska. By 1800 GMT on Sunday all polling stations in Russia were scheduled to close.
Yevgeny Korsak, a 65-year-old pensioner in the city of Saransk, 600 km (375 miles) south-east of Moscow, said he had voted for United Russia “because it is strong and powerful.”
A middle-aged man in the town of Velikiye Luki in western Russia, who declined to give his name, told Reuters: “Of course I voted for United Russia .. We don’t need other parties here. At least they (United Russia) have done their stealing.”
United Russia, led by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, a Putin loyalist, has 238 of 450 Duma seats, dominates the more than 80 regional parliaments, and is routinely depicted in a favorable light by state television, where most Russians get their news.
The party is able to draw on the support of the other three parties in parliament, and 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. Putin does not belong to any party.
By contrast, liberal opposition politicians, who currently 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.
(Additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov in Moscow, Jack Stubbs, Olga Sychkar and Svetlana Burmistrova in Ufa, Andrei Kuzmin in Velikiye Luki, Gleb Stolyarov, Alex Winning and Vladimir Soldatkin in Saransk, Anton Zverev in the Tula Region, Anastasia Teterevleva in the Moscow Region, Maria Tsvetkova, Kira Zavalyova and by Gleb Garanich in Kiev; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Richard Balmforth)