Vladimir Putin. Picture: AFP PHOTO/MAXIM SHEMETOV
Vladimir Putin. Picture: AFP PHOTO/MAXIM SHEMETOV

MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin has hailed a vote for "stability" after his ruling party won a record number of seats at parliamentary polls amid a low turnout.

The Kremlin’s United Russia scooped three-quarters of the seats in the 450-member State Duma after bolstering its tally to over 54% at a nationwide vote on Sunday, securing a majority despite the longest economic crisis of Putin’s 16-year rule.

The vote was marred by the lowest turnout for a parliamentary election in Russia’s post-Soviet history, suggesting many are increasingly turned off by the Kremlin’s total control over public discourse and posing potential questions over legitimacy.

"For United Russia, this was a good result," Putin told his government. "Given the current difficulties, the large amount of uncertainty and risks, people undoubtedly chose stability."

The election followed a tumultuous few years in which Russia seized 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.

Despite a bruising recession that has hit average Russians hard, Putin’s approval rating remains around 80%. Although he has not yet announced he is running, the strongman leader looks set to stroll to victory in presidential elections in 2018.

Pro-Putin parties were always expected to cruise to victory given the Kremlin’s almost complete dominance of the media. But the scale of United Russia’s majority took some observers by surprise.

"It’s obvious that the overwhelming majority of those who voted de-facto voiced support for the president," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Three other parties — which made up the last parliament and all back the Kremlin — were the only ones to clear the 5% threshold needed for representation.

The Communists and the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party both won just over 13%, while A Just Russia received around 6%. No genuine opposition candidate appeared to have made it into the Duma for its new five-year term. Yabloko and Parnas, liberal parties critical of Putin, failed to secure enough votes for a seat.

Interest in the vote was down drastically after a campaign that was dubbed the most boring in recent memory.

Only 47.8% of eligible voters cast their ballots, compared with 60% in 2011. Urban elites appeared to have felt especially frozen out with the turnout in Moscow and Saint Petersburg below 30%. Looming large over this election was the spectre of mass protests over vote-rigging following the last legislative polls in 2011, which grew into the biggest challenge to Putin since he took charge in 2000.

The Kremlin was desperate to avoid a repeat this time round and has cracked down on the right to protest, while making a show of stamping out electoral fraud. Human rights advocate Ella Pamfilova took over from the previous scandal-tainted election chief, but the opposition accused her of ignoring violations even when they were caught on camera.

Golos independent election monitors said 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.

AFP