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.