MOSCOW – Dozens of Russian lawmakers staged a rare walkout from parliament Wednesday to protest what they and independent monitors describe as rigged local elections across Russia.
It was the first time in nine years that all factions except the main Kremlin-favored United Russia party had walked out in protest.
The United Russia party won an overwhelming victory Sunday in more than 7,000 local elections in 75 of Russia's 83 regions. In Moscow, the party won all but three seats on the 35-member city council.
United Russia is a power base for Vladimir Putin, the current prime minister who has not ruled out a return to the presidency in 2012.
Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the nationalist Liberal Democrats, was the first to lead his faction out of the State Duma session in protest. They were soon followed by the Communist Party and Just Russia, which along with United Russia was formed with Kremlin support.
"We demand a re-count of the votes across the country. We don't agree with the election results," Zhirinovsky said before leaving the session, the first since Sunday's elections. "We will return only after a meeting with the head of state."
Independent election observers and opposition parties, including the Communists, insist there were mass electoral violations during the voting. They cite evidence of multiple voting and ballot stuffing, while opposition candidates claim they were hindered from campaigning and some were denied places on the ballot.
Liliya Shibanova, executive director of Golos, a non-governmental organization that monitors elections, said the violations were even worse than in previous years.
"There has been absolutely no feedback or any reaction from the election commission whatsoever to the reports of violations," she said. "These elections have shown that local election officials ... feel they can act with impunity."
Central Elections Commission head Vladimir Churov said Monday the elections were held in accordance in the law.
The elections were seen as a test of President Dmitry Medvedev's commitment to democracy in Russia. Medvedev has spoken out in support of a multiparty system and recently wrote of the need to renew Russia's political system to allow for "free competition."
Yet Medvedev echoed Churov in describing the latest elections as "well-organized" and conducted "in accordance with the law." He also congratulated party leaders on their "convincing" victory, which he said showed the authority the party had acquired.
Putin said the dispute over the elections should be resolved in court. He also expressed support for a multiparty system, though it was under his eight-year presidency that opposition parties were all but excluded from Russia's political process.
"It would be counterproductive to try to force the opposition out of the political scene," Putin told reporters in Beijing. "The country needs the opposition, and there is enough political space for that."
He also urged United Russia to do more to help Russia emerge from the economic crisis.
Party leader Boris Gryzlov, the parliament speaker, called the walkout irresponsible. "The elections are already behind us and populist actions make no sense," he said.
United Russia dominates the State Duma, where it holds 315 of the 450 seats. The three other parties generally offer little opposition.
"It is dishonorable to take away the last (democratic) things that are left in the country — freedom of speech and elections," said Vladimir Kashin, deputy head of the Communist Party.