Putin loyalists set to win Russian local elections

Associated Press
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A woman votes at a polling station in the town of Khimki outside Moscow, Russia, Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012. Russians are casting ballots in local elections that offer a degree of political competition but still remain tightly controlled by President Vladimir Putin's government. One of the most visible races Sunday is that for mayor of the town of Khimki, just outside Moscow. (AP Photo/Mikhail Metzel)

MOSCOW (AP) — President Vladimir Putin's loyalists swept to victory in most local election races held across Russia, early results showed Monday, while independent observers said the vote was marred by widespread fraud.

The Central Election Commission's results showed Kremlin-backed candidates and incumbent governors won all five gubernatorial races held Sunday. Putin's United Russia party also dominated mayoral races and those for local legislatures held in 77 of Russia's 83 regions.

Observers from the independent monitoring organization Golos recorded more than 1,000 violations nationwide, including voter roll irregularities and multiple voting.

Evidence of election fraud at the parliamentary election last December triggered mass anti-Putin protests in Moscow, empowering marginalized opposition leaders. In response the Kremlin promised to ease stiff 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, but 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.

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.

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."