By Alissa de Carbonnel
YESINKA, Russia (Reuters) - Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's ruling party was on course to win regional elections marred by allegations of fraud on Sunday, the last big test of its support before parliamentary and presidential polls.
Opponents said the voting for 12 regional legislatures and dozens of municipal contests were riddled with irregularities and accused United Russia of waging a dirty campaign to win votes. The party denied the allegations.
The voting offered a chance to gauge how much rising inflation, unemployment and resentment of the entrenched "party of power" have sapped its support a year before a presidential election in which Putin could return to Russia's top position.
Early results indicated that United Russia would retain its majority in the contested regions, but it faced challenges in provinces including the poor Kirov region near the Ural mountains and Tver, where the Communists were doing well.
In the small town of Yesinka, 160 km (100 miles) northwest of Moscow, Sergei, 32, said he was voting for United Russia in the Tver region parliamentary poll "because Putin is there."
But Maria, 24, standing outside Yesinka's single polling station, said: "It doesn't matter who you vote for now. United Russia wins anyway."
The partial results reported by the Central Election Commission showed United Russia was ahead with 72.5 percent of votes in Chukotka, on the Bering Strait in Russia's far east.
The party was also ahead in a handful of regions further west, with 40 percent to 70 percent of the votes. No results were in late Sunday from the Russian of Kaliningrad, where a protest over economic conditions drew 10,000 people last year.
Putin, who was president from 2000 to 2008, has suggested he will either run for president in the election due in March 2012 or endorse President Dmitry Medvedev, his protege, for a second term. A parliamentary election is due in December.
Critics accuse Putin of rolling back democracy and muzzling opponents, and say Medvedev's talk of democracy and reforms has brought little real change in the vast, oil-producing country of 142 million people.
After an increase in rates for household electricity, gas and other utilities, a poll by the independent Levada-Center put United Russia's popularity in January at its lowest level in more than a year.
A sharp decline in United Russia's support in the regions, where many people resent the concentration of wealth and jobs in Moscow, would dent Putin's image but he would still be likely to win the presidency because he is more popular than the party.
OPPOSITION CRIES FOUL
Golos, an independent monitoring group, said it had received 400 reports of voting violations hours before polls closed.
Opponents said United Russia had used its grip on the levers of power to ensure it secured more votes.
"United Russia officials are using all the powers at their disposal to get the desired results," said Alexei Chepa, a Just Russia party candidate for the legislature in the Tver region.
"This was a very crude and dirty campaign."
United Russia dismissed the allegations and accused opponents of violations from vote-buying to illegal campaigning. The Central Election Commission said it had received relatively few complaints.
United Russia's main challenger is the Communist Party. The other parties in the national parliament, nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky's LDPR and Just Russia, compete with United Russia but are largely loyal to the Kremlin.
At a nursing home in Rzhev, in the Tver region, a dozen patients told Reuters they all voted for United Russia.
"They brought me the box and I voted for United Russia," said Anna Soboleva, 73, lying in bed.
A nurse who identified herself only as Natalya said: "We don't force them, but we explain to them who the parties are and who to vote for."
(Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Elizabeth Piper)