Russian voters streamed to the polls on Sunday in a parliamentary election that has shaped up as a referendum on the governing party and Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin as he prepares to return to the presidency next year.
While there was little question that the party, United Russia, would win the most votes, given its huge structural advantages and weak opposition, the central question was how well it could continue to sell its message of stability to an increasingly weary electorate, now widely empowered by the Internet to gripe about the status quo.
With the results still being counted, United Russia declared victory on Sunday evening. “While the 2010-2011 elections in the United Kingdom, Spain and Portugal saw the change of ruling parties, we can now say calmly that United Russia remains the ruling party, and I would to thank our voters for that,” Boris Gryzlov, the chairman of the party’s Supreme Council said.
But two exit polls suggested that the party was on its way to losing far more seats than anticipated, potentially redrawing the political landscape, with voters expressing a louder-than-expected message of frustration.
Mr. Putin along with President Dmitri A. Medvedev made a brief appearance at a subdued meeting at United Russia headquarters.
“This is an optimal result which reflects the real situation in the country,” Mr. Putin said, according to Reuters. “Based on this result we can guarantee stable development of our country.”
Mr. Medvedev said, according to Reuters, that United Russia, which had previously held a two-thirds supermajority that allowed it to make changes to the Constitution without consulting the opposition, was prepared to forge alliances on the issues.
Fatigue with United Russia has been building for years, and the election had been expected to reflect that feeling. And Mr. Putin’s announcement on Sept. 24 that he intended to swap places with Mr. Medvedev next year seemed to annoy voters.
The party’s support dipped, and the Kremlin had recently acknowledged that United Russia would almost certainly lose the supermajority.
United Russia currently holds 315 seats in the 450-seat Duma, the lower house of Parliament, and the party had said it could lose as many as 75. While Mr. Putin is still expected to easily win a separate presidential election in March, a steep loss for his party on Sunday would reflect flagging support for him as well.
Final results were expected on Monday.
The party’s supporters said that preserving the current system, with Mr. Putin in charge, was the only prudent course.
Galina I. Popkova, 76, said she voted for United Russia to avoid political paralysis. “I think we need to allow one side to be stronger, so that we will move forward, even if that movement is slow,” she said, though she warned that the government needed to start showing results. “Russians, we are like bears, we are so patient,” she said. “But when our patience ends, then we begin to growl.”
Darya I. Mychkina, 96, held a United Russia poster showing the faces of Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev. “How can you not vote for these beautiful men?” she asked.
But a growing minority of discontented voters voiced their dissatisfaction in numerous ways: voting for any party but United Russia, spoiling their ballots by scrawling political messages on them or boycotting the election.
“Today, I am not voting for someone but against someone, because there is no one appealing to vote for,” said Sergei Tarakanov, 62, who stood in the snow in a leather coat and porkpie hat outside a school in central Moscow where he had just cast his ballot. “So I am a protest voter. Today, I am voting against the party of thieves and swindlers.”
The election also seemed to mark a new chapter in Russian cyberpolitics. Throughout the campaign, voters used cellphones to record video of heavy-handed politicking, including bribery attempts, campaign law violations and other manipulations, and to then quickly distribute the evidence on the Web.
There were also several attacks on political Web sites on Sunday. Golos, the country’s only independent election monitor, which was fined about $1,000 by a Moscow court on Friday for breaking the law by publishing complaints of campaign abuses, had its Web site disabled by a cyberattack on Sunday morning.
Several other sites also reported crippling attacks, including Ekho Moskvy, a popular radio station, and LiveJournal, the country’s most popular blogging platform. United Russia reported that one of its Web sites, established to track campaign violations by its opponents, had also come under assault.
Experts said the most significant campaign violation may be the hardest to prove: United Russia’s use of government resources to help its political campaign.
United Russia has a huge structural advantage. Russia elects members of Parliament proportionally by party list. The United Russia lists are all headed by Mr. Medvedev, but they also typically include an array of well-known state and local politicians, and even celebrity athletes and performers.
Many of these candidates draw votes even though they may never serve in Parliament. Under complex rules, the parties can replace candidates who withdraw. Only United Russia has the resources to field strong lists in every region.
The opposition parties best-positioned to win seats from United Russia were the Communists and the nationalist Liberal Democrats. Some voters said the two parties’ historical baggage left them with a wrenching choice.
A 30-year-old bank clerk, who would give only his first name, Alexei, said he had voted for the Communists as a protest.
Ruman Urovlyov, 35, a nutritionist, said he would spoil his ballot. “These elections are illegitimate, and I plan to write several strong Russian words on my ballot,” he said.
A third opposition party, Just Russia, was also expected to gain at United Russia’s expense.
There were scattered reports of voting irregularities, a smattering of protests and some arrests. The police presence was heavy at many polling stations and on the streets in many cities.
In Moscow, the police broke up a few protests by members of marginal leftist parties and a group representing people who lost money in real estate frauds. The organizers were arrested. At Revolution Square, a few protesters milled about in the cold drizzle and yelled, “Free elections!” before the police dispersed them.
Eduard Limonov, a poet and politician who founded the now disbanded National Bolshevik Party, invited journalists to his apartment to lay out complaints against the election, not wanting to wait until a protest later because he is typically arrested right away.
“It’s totally manipulated in advance, a total manipulation, a total lie,” he said. “It’s a show, a macabre, stupid show.” As expected, he was arrested after stepping out of his car at Triumfalnaya Square, a traditional protest spot.
At Moscow State University, there were long lines and some administrative confusion, but voting mostly proceeded without incident.
Lilia Yapparova, 21, said she had settled on the Yabloko party. “I think Yabloko can bring young politicians to the Duma,” she said, adding that her main concern was the possibility of stagnation given Mr. Putin’s plans to return as president. “For the next 12 years, I will live like it’s not for real,” she said.
Of 14 people interviewed after leaving the polling station in a working-class neighborhood in north Moscow, 6 said they had cast their vote for the Liberal Democratic Party, 2 said they had voted for United Russia, 2 for the Communist Party, 2 for Yabloko and 1 for Just Russia.
Vladislav Voronkov, 21, said the makeup of the next Duma will send a warning that voters will push back if their demands are not met. “If nothing changes, there will be mass dissatisfaction,” he said. Of Mr. Putin, he added, “The population is giving him one more chance.”
Reporting was contributed by Ellen Barry, Andrew E. Kramer, Michael Schwirtz, Olga Slobodchikova, Glenn Kates, Sophia Kishkovsky, Nikolay Khalip and Viktor Klimenko.