Putin Scores Landslide Win, Opposition Cries Foul

President Vladimir Putin's party won a landslide victory in a parliamentary election, official results showed on Monday, but international observers said the vote was "not fair."

The Kremlin said the outcome of Sunday's election was a strong endorsement of Putin's policies. He is expected to use it as a mandate to continue shaping Russian politics after his term ends next year, although he has not said how he will do so.

The Central Election Commission said that with almost all votes counted, United Russia had won 64.1 percent of votes, nearly six times as many as the nearest challenger, the Communist party. Two smaller pro-Kremlin groupings took another 16 percent of the vote and pro-Western parties won no seats.

But allegations of vote-rigging and fraud have alarmed the European Union, which said free speech had been violated in the run-up to the vote, and the United States, which urged the Russian authorities to investigate the allegations.

The concerns of foul play could drive a new wedge between an increasingly assertive Moscow and the West, which Putin accused last week of "poking their snotty noses" in Russia's affairs.

Opposition parties and international monitors said one-sided press coverage in the campaign, heavy use of government resources to campaign for pro-Kremlin parties, and numerous irregularities during voting had skewed the outcome.

Observers from the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) described the election as "not fair" in a statement, saying it "failed to meet many... commitments and standards for democratic elections".

The Communists, who won 11.6 percent of votes, said they would challenge the result in the courts.

But the head of Russia's Central Election Commission, Vladimir Churov, a former colleague of Putin, dismissed the allegations of fraud.

Endorsement For Putin

The Kremlin hailed the outcome as a show of support for Putin, who campaigned vigorously for United Russia. Financial market analysts said the result would bolster stability and encourage investment.

"Russian voters spoke in favor of United Russia, thus supporting President Putin's course, and spoke in favor of it being continued after the current president's second term ends," said Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman.

Projections by the Electoral Commission showed pro-Kremlin parties would win about 393 of the 450 seats in the next State Duma, the lower house of parliament. That would be more than enough to allow them to change the constitution if they wished.

Putin has not said what he will do after his second term ends in May. Some political observers say he could seek a third term as president, although he has said he will not change the constitution to make this possible.

Opinion polls show Putin, a 55-year-old former KGB agent, is extremely popular after eight years in power. Voters credit him with restoring stability and national pride and like his tough nationalism and criticism of the West.

The international observers said "frequent abuse of administrative resources, media coverage strongly in favor of the ruling party and an election code whose cumulative effect hindered political pluralism" had tainted the election.

In Chechnya, a region in the North Caucasus which faces a separatist insurgency and is run by pro-Kremlin Ramzan Kadyrov, officials said a partial count showed United Russia had won 99.3 percent of the votes on a 99-percent turnout.

Europe's main ODIHR election watchdog -- seen in the West as a key yardstick of the fairness of an election -- decided not to monitor the election, citing obstruction by Russian authorities.

But liberal politician Boris Nemtsov called it "the most dishonest election in the history of modern Russia."

Investors were not overly concerned. They said the result should provide stability and continuity and Putin would regard it as a clear mandate to retain control.

"Criticism over the handling of the election from foreign governments should be short-lived," Chris Weafer, chief analyst at Moscow investment bank Uralsib, said.