By Steve Gutterman and Gabriela Baczynska
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian regional elections have tightened Vladimir Putin's grip on power and underlined opposition failure to build street protest into an effective challenge at the start of the president's six-year term.
Ten months ago, suspicions that fraud propelled Putin's ruling United Russia party to victory in a parliamentary election brought tens of thousands of people into the streets of Moscow for the biggest protests of his 12 years in power.
As United Russia celebrated victory on Monday in local and regional elections that its foes alleged were just as dirty as the December vote, one opposition leader tweeted that nationwide protests were imminent.
"The authorities leave the people no choice!" opposition lawmaker and protest leader Dmitry Gudkov wrote on Twitter. The tweet sounded more like a plea than a prediction.
There was no sign of such a spontaneous outburst.
"There is clearly no potential for any repetition of what happened in December, when people went into the streets saying they didn't believe the election results," said political analyst Pavel Salin. "This is out of the question now."
The opposition's limited reach was underlined by the elections on Sunday, which protest leaders had held out just a few months ago as a key step in eroding Putin's hold on power.
United Russia won all five governorships at stake in the first elections of regional leaders since Putin scrapped them in favor of appointees during his initial 2000-2008 presidency.
The restored gubernatorial elections, however, are not open to all comers. Candidates must gather signatures from lawmakers to get on the ballot and the Kremlin reappointed many governors in the months before the reform entered into force so that they would not have to face voters.
Electors would be aware, in any case, that a candidate with good ties to the Kremlin, most of all to Putin, would have the best chances of obtaining local favor in economic projects.
A bloc descended from parties that held national parliament seats before Putin chased liberal opponents to the margins a decade ago barely cleared the 5 percent barrier to win seats in the city council in Barnaul, in the remote Altai region.
The Republican Party-People's Freedom Party campaign in Barnaul was headed by Vladimir Ryzhkov, a leaders of the opposition protests that followed the December election.
Another protest leader, Yevgeniya Chirikova, came a distant second in the mayoral race in the Moscow suburb of Khimki with about 18 percent of the vote, electoral officials said, while the United Russia-backed candidate had nearly 48 percent.
Chirikova alleged electoral violations, but analyst Alexei Mukhin said she and other opponents of the acting mayor, Oleg Shakhov, "could not have succeeded in grabbing the attention of the voters who are mainly worried about utilities prices and other economic issues. As a result Shakhov won."
A survey released by Moscow-based polling agency VTsIOM on Monday indicated that more than half of Russians count housing and utilities costs and inflation as the country's most serious problems while only 11 percent named democracy - the main focus of the street protests - and human rights.
The destitution suffered by many in the early post-Soviet period, notably the 1990s, makes economic stability a cherished aim. Russia's current high earnings from oil exports helps furnish that stability.
The protests had brought diverse Putin opponents together, but they lack a clear leader.
"The opposition's main problem is that they are facing a pressing need to ... present a real alternative to those in power," Mukhin said.
Putin said on Monday that the results were "not unexpected".
"I see this as another step confirming the voters' intention to support the existing institutes of power and the development of Russian statehood," Russian media quoted him as saying in a meeting with Central Election Commission chief Vladimir Churov.
PLAYING WITH MARKED CARDS
But United Russia's victories were clouded by accusations of fraud and by lower turnout in many of the races.
Low turnout showed that "citizens not only doubt those in power but do not trust the whole political and electoral system," Salin said.
Lyubov, a 49-year-old in the western city of Bryansk, said on Sunday that she had voted for the Communist challenging the United Russia incumbent for the governor's post, but had little hope he would win.
"Everything turns out the way somebody at the top wants," she said.
Ilya Yashin, one of the protest leaders, said that opposition candidates had undermined United Russia and helped expose alleged violations.
"There's no point in talking about winning or losing when you play with cards marked against you. But you still sit at the table and play simply to show that your opponent is a cardsharp," Yashin said.
(Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Alissa de Carbonnel and Ralph Boulton)