MOSCOW – Early results on Sunday showed Russia's ruling United Russia party winning in the parliamentary election amid reports of election violations and visible voter apathy in the country's two largest cities.
With more than 8 percent of the ballots counted, United Russia was recording 45 percent of the vote for party-list seats and far ahead in single-district contests.
The Liberal Democrats and Communists were both recording about 17 percent and A Just Russia had 6 percent.
The results are likely to change as votes are counted from the western parts of Russia that are more urbanized and where opposition sentiment is stronger. But the election for the 450-seat State Duma, the lower house of parliament, is unlikely to substantially change the distribution of power, in which United Russia party has held an absolute majority for more than a decade.
Perceived honesty of the election could be a critical factor in whether protests arise following the voting.
Massive demonstrations broke out in Moscow after the last Duma election in 2011, unsettling authorities with their size and persistence.
Russian Election Commission chief Ella Pamfilova, who pledged to clean up the notoriously rigged system when she assumed the post earlier this year, said as the polls closed that she saw no reason to nullify the vote in any location, conceding, however, that the election "wasn't sterile."
President Vladimir Putin, who formally is not a United Russia member, turned up at its election headquarters shortly after the first results were announced and congratulated the would-be lawmakers.
"Things are tough but people still voted for United Russia," he said. "It means that people see that United Russia members are really working hard for people even though it doesn't always work."
Putin referred to the unusually low turnout as "not the highest," but said it was good enough for the Kremlin party to win an absolute majority.
Voter turnout in Russia's largest cities appeared to be much lower than five years ago, indicating that the widespread practice of coercing state employees to vote in previous elections wasn't as prevalent this time around.
The turnout by 6 p.m. (1500 GMT; 11 a.m. EDT) was at a record low of 29 percent in Moscow, compared to over 50 percent five years earlier, and under 20 percent in St. Petersburg, Russia's second-largest city.
Previous elections have shown that the regions with the highest turnout were where voters, mostly state employees, were pressured to cast ballots.
Independent political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin, in remarks on the online television channel Dozhd, described the low turnout as the urbanite's "sofa sit-in."
"It's a form of protest, it's escapism," Oreshkin said. "People want to stay away from politics."
Grigory Melkonyants, co-chairman of the election monitoring group Golos, said the lower voter turnout reflected less anxiety among local authorities to produce a high turnout.
Golos had received more than 2,000 complaints of suspected vote rigging from all over the country by early afternoon. Among the reported violations were long lines of soldiers voting at stations where they weren't registered, and voters casting their ballots on tables instead of curtained-off voting booths
Videos posted on YouTube appeared to show poll workers in several regions in southern Russia dropping multiple sheets of paper into a ballot box.
In the Siberian region of Altai, a candidate from the liberal Yabloko party claimed that young people were voting in the name of elderly people unlikely to come to polling stations. Pamiflova said the results from Altai could be annulled if allegations of vote fraud there were confirmed.
In Moscow, independent election observers and opposition candidates on Sunday reported busloads of people arriving at their polling stations to vote, fueling speculations of multiple voting with the help of absentee ballots.
Melkonyants of Golos said most of the complaints the organization received from Moscow were about those groups of voters although he said he "couldn't categorically say that this is a violation."
"But observers perceive it as a trick which local officials could be using in order to boost the turnout in their districts," Melkonyants said, adding that the bus passengers also may have been coerced to vote in violation of Russian law.
Pamfilova conceded that boosting the turnout in the areas where it was expected to be low might explain the voters traveling by bus and denied suggestions of multiple voting.
"It makes no difference where a person votes for the party of their choice," she said.
This election is a departure from the two previous votes for the Duma, in which seats were distributed on a national party-list basis. This year, half the seats are being contested in single districts. Independent candidates were also allowed, although only 23 met the requirements to get on the ballot, according to the elections-monitoring mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Many voters at a polling station in southwest Moscow said the only reason to cast a ballot was to take votes away from United Russia, which has dominated the parliament for more than a decade.
Alexei Krugly, 63, said he voted for Yabloko because he "feels even more distaste for others."
"They're just as bad as everyone, but I stand for diversity," he said. "This time I came (to vote) because Yabloko got its act together and I think it has chances to make it to the Duma."
In the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, dozens of right-wing protesters gathered around the Russian Embassy, where a voting station was set up. At least one demonstrator was detained in a scuffle with police. Another demonstration took place outside the Russian consulate in Odessa, where four protesters were arrested.