A top pro-Kremlin party led in early returns Monday from Chechnya's first parliamentary election since federal troops reinvaded more than six years ago, and President Vladimir Putin hailed the vote as a key to restoring law and order.

Sunday's election was the centerpiece of the Kremlin's strategy to restore stability to the southern region. International observers who were monitoring the balloting for the flaws that have marred three previous votes and a Council of Europe fact-finding mission decried a climate of fear, saying it was hard to hold a genuine democratic ballot.

Analysts fear the new parliament will be nothing more than a rubber-stamp body for the republic's Kremlin-backed governing elite.

About 350 candidates campaigned for 58 seats in the two-chamber parliament, with most of Russia's main national political parties fielding contenders.

The main Kremlin-backed United Russia party surged far ahead of others with 61 percent of the vote, according to early returns, said regional Central Election Commission chief Ismail Baikhanov. Communists and the liberal Union of Right Forces were trailing it with 12 percent and 11 percent of the vote respectively, he said.

The affiliation of candidates elected in single-ballot races wasn't immediately clear but most are expected to have links with the United Russia.

Turnout exceeded 60 percent, Baikhanov said.

Putin, speaking at a Cabinet session, said the election has "completed the legal procedures of restoration of the constitutional order" and hailed voters' "strength of character and political maturity." "They have shown that no one can scare them," Putin said.

He added that the government has yet to normalize socio-economic situation in the region. "We understand quite well that we still need to do a lot of work to remove destabilizing factors," Putin said in televised remarks.

An estimated 100,000 civilians, soldiers and rebels have died in two wars in Chechnya since federal troops first swept into the region in 1994 to crush its bid for independence.

Russia's forces withdrew after a humiliating defeat in 1996 but stormed back three years later after Chechen rebels raided a neighboring Russian region and a series of deadly apartment block blasts were blamed on the separatists.

Moscow hopes that the fourth popular vote since March 2003 will serve as a further catalyst for stability. The Kremlin says the three previous polls — two presidential, one a referendum — along with a recent rock concert, the construction of a new water amusement park, the success of Grozny's professional soccer team and a boxing tournament opened by Mike Tyson in September, point to a return to normalcy.

Still, unemployment is endemic and daily violence persists, with rebels staging regular hit-and-run attacks on troops and police and skirmishes between feuding criminal gangs vying for some of Chechnya's substantial oil wealth.

Early Monday, Sultan Demilkhanov, the head of the local administration in the village of Pamyatoi in the southern Shatoi region, was killed by unidentified gunmen who ambushed his vehicle, the regional branch of Russia's Interior Ministry said. Demilkhanov's brother was running for parliament.

Also fueling intense loathing are the rampant abductions staged by gangs, Russian troops and paramilitaries. Many blame a feared security force controlled by the man likely to be Chechnya's next president — 29-year-old Ramzan Kadyrov, son of President Akhmad Kadyrov, who was assassinated in a bomb attack in 2004.

Nearly 1,700 people have been kidnapped in recent years and are still missing, government officials say.

Andreas Gross, head of an eight-member delegation from the Council of Europe, the continent's main human rights body, said Chechens were very frightened because "the real power ... is not the elected authorities."

"This creates a situation that makes it hard to conduct real democratic elections," he said.