Results of Russia's Dec. 4 parliamentary elections have upended the United Russia party's dominance of the government. They foreshadow new challenges to current Prime Minister - and presidential hopeful - Vladimir Putin in advance of March presidential elections.
United Russia's former two-thirds majority is now just 53 percent. By contrast, its closest challenger, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, has posted big gains, winning nearly 20 percent of seats, up from less than 12 percent in 2007.
Many observers say only pervasive fraud kept United Russia's losses from being far worse. Videos showing violations went viral on the Internet, fueling protests including a thousands-strong rally in downtown Moscow.
There and in St. Petersburg, police arrested hundreds of demonstrators protesting the wholesale stuffing of ballot boxes and other violations.
In one video cited by The New York Times, an election observer caught an official at a Moscow polling place sitting at his desk, marking ballots. In another, observers from an opposition party showed that the ink in pens in voting booths was easily erasable. In a third, observers caught a group carrying multiple ballots marked for United Russia in bags under their clothes.
Election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) cited overall concerns about lack of separation between the government and United Russia, and election administrators' lack of independence.
The Just Russia party said it would investigate ballot box stuffing in St. Petersburg, said to involve pre-marked ballots. The independent Russian election monitor, Golos, said it had logged over 7,000 cases of fraud, and reported that its web site had been felled by a cyber attack.
Despite the Communist Party of the Russian Federation's gains, CPRF head Gennady Zyuganov called the elections "unprecedented in their filth, pressure and falsification." He said the CPRF will now insist on a greater role in running the government, including naming of a party member as parliament's deputy speaker.
In a statement, the CPRF said the campaign was "fierce and riddled with gross violations of the law by the authorities, anti-Communist pronouncements and numerous cases of vote rigging. We were confronted by the state machine of Russia, its bureaucratic apparatus, and not the political party that calls itself United Russia."
The CPRF said it had also gained in regional elections around the country.
The CPRF's election program calls for ensuring national security, shifting from economic decline to accelerated development, and overcoming poverty and social degradation. Near-term priorities include renewed industrialization, special concern for agriculture, greater interaction between science and production, supporting children and youth, improving health and education, and "a new cultural upsurge."
Trying to put a good face on things, Putin told supporters at United Russia headquarters that the election results show "we can assure the stable development of the country." But the pervasive election violations have only reinforced the widespread view that United Russia is "the party of thieves and crooks."
Vladimir Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin as Russia's president, serving from 2000 through early 2008. Since then he has served as prime minister. He now seeks to return to the presidency in the March elections.
Photo: Russian Communist Party supporters protest election fraud, Moscow, Russia, Dec. 5. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)