President Vladimir Putin's party has won a huge majority in Russia's parliamentary elections, early results show, but the opposition has vowed to challenge what it calls widespread vote violations.
The United Russia Party won 63.6 percent of votes, according to official results with 30.4 percent of ballots counted.
If confirmed the the result would pave the way for Mr Putin to retain power after leaving office next year and United Russia leader Boris Gryzlov hailed the result as a national endorsement for Mr Putin.
“These elections were a referendum of support for the course of Vladimir Putin and we can say that Vladimir Putin was victorious,” Mr Gryzlov said. “This vote confirmed that Vladimir Putin is our national leader.”
United Russia and its allies A Just Russia and the Liberal Democratic Party would enter the State Duma with a collective 78.2 percent of the vote, according to an exit poll by the All-Russian Centre for the Study of Public Opinion.
Under the proportional representation system here their share of the 450 seats would be even higher.
The Communists, the only opposition party to pass the threshold for a seat, got 11.5 percent, according to the exit poll. The Communists said they would contest the results in court because of election irregularities.
The crushing victory immediately turned attention to 55-year-old Mr Putin's plans after he steps down next year after two consecutive terms, the maximum under the constitution.
Mr Putin said before the election that a landslide would give him a “moral” mandate to retain a major, but unspecified role.
Constitutional changes expected
Analysts and politicians say the ex-KGB agent could make constitutional changes to move power away from the presidency to another post, which he would fill. Or he could pick a loyalist to replace him in presidential elections next March 2 and retain power from behind the scenes.
Yevgeny Volk, an analyst with the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, said Sunday's results meant Mr Putin's options were open.
“This victory could be interpreted as carte blanche for revision of the constitution,” Mr Volk said.
The elections followed a campaign marred by accusations that the Kremlin rigged the contest, using controversial new election laws and state media to ensure a triumph for the president's party.
The Communist Party said it would challenge the results at the Supreme Court.
The main European election watchdog had withdrawn plans for a monitoring mission, complaining of a lack of cooperation from Moscow, and Western governments have been increasingly strident in criticising Mr Putin's tactics.
Eleven parties participated, but United Russia, whose lead candidate was Mr Putin, had always been forecast to get an overwhelming win.
Mr Putin is widely popular thanks to huge revenues from energy exports, steadily rising living standards and a restored sense of national pride after the traumatic Soviet collapse.
“I voted for United Russia. Life's got better under Putin,” said Mohammed Egemberdiyev, a 43-year-old plumber, after voting in central Moscow.
Mr Putin had warned Russians to vote for United Russia or risk the “disintegration” of their country.
He also described as “jackals” his pro-Western liberal opponents, who for the first time since the Soviet collapse in 1991 failed to win a single seat.
The beleaguered opposition, ranging from liberals to Communists, charges the Kremlin with suppressing debate, dominating state television, confiscating election leaflets and arresting activists.
“We have seen a campaign of unprecedented pressure on the voters,” said Alexander Kynev at Golos, an independent voter watchdog body which receives EU and US government funds.
Former chess champion turned bitter Kremlin critic Garry Kasparov, who spent five days behind bars last week for taking part in an unauthorised anti-Putin protest, deliberately spoiled his ballot Sunday, saying “these elections are rigged.”
There was also concern in the West, where relations with Russia have become increasingly tense under Mr Putin, who controls the world's largest energy reserves.
International community concerned
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) boycotted the polls, citing a lack of cooperation from Moscow.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel told German radio on the eve of voting that, “we have noticed the restrictions on the possibility for activists to express their civil rights.”
The United States has urged Russia to investigate claims of election day violations.
“Early reports from Russia include allegations of election day violations. We urge Russian authorities to investigate these claims,” said White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe.
Putin accused the OSCE of playing politics with backing from Washington to discredit the vote.