MOSCOW (AP) — President Vladimir Putin's loyalists swept to victory in most local election races held across Russia, preliminary results showed Monday, while independent observers said the vote was openly rigged. The independent monitoring organization Golos estimated that as many as half of the votes for the Kremlin party in one Siberian city may have been falsified.
The Central Election Commission's results showed Kremlin-backed candidates and incumbent governors won all five gubernatorial races held Sunday. The Kremlin party, United Russia, also dominated mayoral races and those for local legislatures held in 77 of Russia's 83 regions.
Observers from Golos recorded more than 1,000 violations nationwide, including voter roll irregularities and multiple voting.
"No one is ashamed of anything anymore," Golos deputy head Grigory Melkonyants said. "We have open and transparent violations of the law, and nobody in government is doing anything about it."
At a meeting with the head of the Central Election Commission, Putin said the elections were "a serious step toward strengthening Russian statehood and created the conditions for energetic, effective development."
Evidence of election fraud at the parliamentary election last December triggered mass anti-Putin protests in Moscow, empowering marginalized opposition leaders. But the dismal turnout on Sunday indicates a passive electorate with little interest in elections that most Russians assume will be manipulated.
The highest numbers of violations were reported in the southern cities of Saratov and Krasnodar, according to Golos. The reported violations included the use of fake absentee ballots and the practice of "carousels" enabling people to vote multiple times.
Nikolai Levichev, who heads the opposition Just Russia faction in parliament, said observers from his party caught a schoolteacher stuffing ballots who tried to excuse herself by saying "It's only five ballots."
In the Siberian city of Barnaul, Golos observers recorded more than 300 vehicles each ferrying four or five voters to several polling stations, a typical example of "carousel" voting. Golos estimated that as many as half of United Russia's votes there were falsified.
In response to the anti-Putin protests, the Kremlin had promised to ease restrictive electoral laws and re-introduce elections for Russia's 83 provincial governors. But once the protests abated, it introduced new restrictions, such as requiring gubernatorial candidates to represent a party and have the endorsement of at least 5 percent of lawmakers in their regional legislatures, most of which are under Kremlin control.
The Kremlin also moved quickly to appoint many new governors — in effect delaying direct elections in those regions for five more years.
In one of Sunday's most visible races, award-winning environmentalist and opposition leader Yevgeniya Chirikova came in second with 18 percent in the mayoral election in the Moscow suburb of Khimki against Kremlin-backed Oleg Shakhov, who got 48 percent, early results showed.
Chirikova and her supporters alleged voting fraud, claiming that hundreds of voters had been added to the rolls overnight, and said observers had been repeatedly hindered by both officials and hired thugs. However, she also proved unable to inspire younger voters or overcome the fears of older residents over her lack of executive experience. Turnout in the race was only 28 percent.
Chirikova also had to deal with two spoiler candidates, one an official known for his environmental activism and the other a heavy metal singer who had pledged to staff the Khimki administration with "efficient" Germans. Golos estimated that spoiler candidates, used to steal votes from genuine opposition candidates, received 8 percent of the vote nationwide.
Turnout was highest in the gubernatorial race in the Belgorod region, at 48 percent, while it was lowest in the race for the local legislature in Vladivostok, in the Far East, where only 8 percent of eligible voters cast their ballot.
Political analyst Alexander Kynev said the low turnout was a damning indictment of the regime, which had ignored voters' desires for so long that they simply lost interest. "Society demands new leaders," he said.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who is also the chairman of the United Russia party, hailed the results.
"Everyone was expecting the party's fiasco after the December election," he said. "But nothing of the kind happened, and we got this result in a completely different environment."