MOSCOW (Reuters)–Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday hailed as a step toward democracy the poll that stacked parliament with his allies but Western observers called it "overwhelmingly distorted" and Washington expressed concern.
The fourth such election since the Soviet Union’s collapse crushed Putin’s Communist and liberal opponents–prompting warnings of a return to authoritarian rule–and effectively guaranteed him a second term in March’s presidential poll.
It could also give him enough votes to change the constitution so he can run for a third term. Putin’s supporters say the pro-Kremlin majority will hand the ex-KGB spy more powers to push economic reform and fight corruption. Critics fear the death of democracy after a strong nationalist showing all but wiped out liberal parties.
"The election is another step in strengthening democracy in the Russian Federation," Putin told senior officials.
But the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe–a rights and democracy watchdog–said the vote was skewed by the use of state resources to promote pro-Putin United Russia. "In this election the enormous advantage of incumbency and access to state equipment–resources and buildings led to the election result being overwhelmingly distorted," said Bruce George–president of the OSCE’s parliamentary assembly.
"It is even more regrettable that the main impression of the overall electoral process is that it was one of regression in the democratization process of this country," he added
In Washington–White House spokesman Scott McClellan said: "We share those concerns"
The leader of the Communist Party–facing a second death after its rebirth in the chaos of the 1990s–called the election a farce and accused the Kremlin of rigging the vote.
"You are all participants in a revolting spectacle which for some reason is called an election," Gennady Zyuganov said.
TOGETHER WITH THE PRESIDENT
Created by the Kremlin for the last election in 1999 to help Putin’s rise to power–United Russia won 37.1 percent of the vote–the central election commission said. Its slogan was "Together with the President.”
The communists–Putin’s main opposition–had only 12.7 percent–well down from the 24 percent they won in 1999.
Ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s party–which backs the Kremlin on key issues–won 11.6 percent and Motherland–seen by many as a Kremlin creation to draw off votes from the communists–had 9.1 percent.
That means the pro-Kremlin bloc could get the two-thirds majority needed to change the constitution to allow Putin a third four-year term–although he ruled that out in June.
The vote reflected widespread support for Putin’s efforts to restore central control since succeeding Boris Yeltsin in 2000 and ending the chaos of the early reform years.
"Yesterday’s election shows what the Russian people actually think: they are stridently nationalist–want wealth redistributed and have little interest in liberal or democratic values," Aton brokerage said in a research note.
Russian stocks closed higher as the market–still jittery over a Kremlin-led attack on Russia’s richest businessman–saw new hope for economic reforms.
Former YUKOS chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested in October on charges of tax evasion and fraud–raising fears that the Kremlin might review results of 1990s privatizations.