Putin loyalists set to win Russian local votes

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 in Russia, early results showed Monday, while independent observers said the vote was marred by widespread fraud.

The Central Election Commission's results show Kremlin-backed candidates and incumbent governors have swept all five gubernatorial races in the country's five regions. Putin's United Russia party also dominated mayoral races and those for local legislatures.

Observers from the independent monitoring organization Golos recorded over a thousand violations nationwide, including voter roll irregularities and multiple voting.

Evidence of election fraud at the parliamentary election last December triggered massive anti-Putin protests in Moscow, empowering marginalized opposition leaders. In response Kremlin promised to ease stiff election laws and re-introduce gubernatorial races in the five regions. But once the protests abated, it introduced new restrictions such as requiring would-be governors to run only if they represent a party, and have the endorsement of at least five percent of lawmakers in regional legislatures.

In one of the most visible races, award-winning environmentalist and opposition leader Yevgeniya Chirikova came in second with 18 percent in the mayoral election in Moscow's suburb of Khimki against Kremlin-backed Oleg Shakhov who got 48 percent, early results showed.

Turnout was the highest in the gubernatorial race in Belgorod region, where 48 percent of the electorate cast their vote, while the lowest was in the race for the local legislature in Vladivostok, in the Far East, where only eight percent cast their ballot.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who is also the chairman of 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've got this result in a completely different environment."