MOSCOW: Russia's ruling United Russia party has won a record number of seats in parliamentary polls that could pave the way for President Vladimir Putin to glide to a fourth term in 2018 elections.
With more than 98.3 percent of the ballots counted, United Russia had garnered 54.2 percent of the votes for parties, giving it a constitutional majority in parliament, according to results announced Monday morning.
Sunday's ballot for the 450-seat State Duma was smooth sailing for the authorities, with no sign of the mass protests following the last vote, though a historic low turnout could become problematic as Russia faces the longest economic crisis of Putin's rule.
The Kremlin attributed the result to Putin's popularity.
"It's obvious that the overwhelming majority of those who voted de facto voiced support for the president," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists.
"Once more, we see the president gain an impressive vote of confidence from the people."
The vote comes as Putin's ratings remain high at around 80 percent, and the authorities appear to be banking on trouble-free presidential elections in two years' time.
Three other parties -- which made up the last parliament and all back the Kremlin -- were the only ones to clear the five percent threshold needed to claim a share of the one-half of seats up for grabs.
The Communists and the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party won 13.36 percent and 13.18 percent respectively, while A Just Russia received 6.2 percent.
The other half of the deputies are elected on a constituency basis after a change to the election law.
This gives United Russia a total of more than three-quarters of the vote and at least 343 seats in the 450-member parliament, up from 238 previously, and a record for the party.
But it was also the election with the lowest turnout in Russia's history, suggesting many may have been turned off by a system in which the Kremlin wields near-total power -- and which could raise questions over legitimacy.
Only 47.8 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots, compared with 60 percent in 2011, electoral officials said.
Turnout was particularly low in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, where less than 30 percent of voters went to the polls.
Liberal opposition groups failed to make it into parliament, with neither Yabloko, nor the Parnas party of former premier Mikhail Kasyanov and assassinated Putin critic Boris Nemtsov, securing enough votes to win a seat.
"I'm upset by such a low turnout at these polls. Russians are letting go possibly the last chance to change the authorities democratically," Kasyanov said after the vote.
Dmitry Gudkov, the Duma's only lawmaker to back opposition causes, lost his seat, blaming the outcome on the low turnout.
"You can't elect yourself to the Duma if people don't believe in the elections," he wrote on Facebook.
Sunday's election follows a tumultuous few years that have seen Russia seize the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine, sparking its worst standoff with the West since the Cold War, and the start of a military campaign in Syria.
Not free and fair
Looming large was the spectre of mass protests over vote-rigging that followed the last legislative polls five years ago and which grew into the biggest challenge to Putin since he took charge in 2000.
Since then, the Kremlin has cracked down on the right to protest while making a show of stamping out electoral fraud.
The former scandal-tainted election chief was removed in favour of human rights advocate Ella Pamfilova, but she too was accused by the opposition of ignoring violations even when they were caught on camera.
Golos independent election monitors said in a statement on Monday that "there were fewer incidents of gross direct falsification than in 2011" but that the vote was "far from what can truly be called free and fair" because of the ruling party's domination of the campaign.
Pamfilova admitted there were problems in several regions but that "the level of transparency was incomparably higher than in the previous electoral campaign."
For the first time since Moscow seized the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in 2014, residents there voted for Russia's parliament, in a poll slammed by Ukraine as illegal.
Voters in some areas of the vast country were also electing regional leaders.
In the North Caucasus region of Chechnya, strongman Ramzan Kadyrov looked set to win the first electoral test of his rule, winning more than 98 percent after more than three-quarters of the votes had been counted.
Rights groups had complained that criticism was ruthlessly silenced during his campaign.