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Ruling Party Shows Strength Amid Low Turnout in Russian Vote

MOSCOW — Russians voted in nearly 5,000 regional and local elections on Sunday, as opposition candidates tried to take advantage of electoral laws loosened last year in response to demands for open political competition.

As polls closed, though, candidates from United Russia, the ruling party of President Vladimir V. Putin, were favored to win most races, and a low turnout in some places was testament to weak fields of competitors. United Russia’s incumbents were poised to win in all five elections for governors— including two who were considered so unpopular that they were vulnerable to Communist Party challengers.

Prime Minister Dmitri A. Medvedev, who now heads United Russia, congratulated party members in Moscow, saying heightened competition had improved the party’s performance.

“Everyone expected a party fiasco after December’s elections,” he said. “Supposedly there was a downward trend, and everything was going to collapse under us. But nothing of the kind happened — under completely different circumstances, this was the result.”

What intrigue there was came from volunteer election monitors, who fanned out to polling stations across the country hoping to document fraud. Since last year’s parliamentary elections, election-monitoring has leapt in popularity.

“The types of violations which people used to accept calmly, and accepted as something unavoidable — people are now taking them much more seriously,” said Aleksei V. Makarkin of Moscow’s Center for Political Technologies.

A particularly dramatic showdown was in the Moscow suburb of Khimki, where one mayoral candidate was Yevgenia Chirikova, a young mother who organized against the destruction of a local forest and became one of the most recognizable faces of the protest movement. Late Sunday night, exit polls suggested that she was running well behind Oleg Shakhov, the acting mayor.

Officials said 3,000 election observers — some linked to individual candidates, others independent — fanned out to cover 72 locations in Khimki. Surrounded by a crowd of journalists, Ms. Chirikova traveled from one polling station to another all day, taking reports. Late at night, she spoke to reporters outside a station where, she said, one of her campaign’s observers had gotten into a brawl with an official. The police were guarding the site, but she was angry and protective.

“I am watching to make sure they do not beat my observers,” she said, adding that if that happened, “no riot police will be able to restrain me.”

Officials were braced for a wave of reported violations to be published online, a trend that caught the government unaware ahead of last December’s parliamentary elections. Mr. Shakhov said the opposition activists had flooded into Khimki hoping to sabotage the election.

“It’s a show,” Mr. Shakhov said. “These are provocations that are designed to raise questions about the elections here. They are playing a game, and they are going to lose it.”

Russians in five regions were voting for governor — a novelty in and of itself, since Mr. Putin abolished direct elections for governors eight years ago in favor of presidential appointments. More than 4,500 candidates were competing for seats in local councils, and Kaliningrad, Russia‘s westernmost city, was electing a new mayor.

Most races turned out to be less than riveting. The contests for governor were micromanaged by the Kremlin, which imposed strict screening of candidates and then made back-room deals to force strong contenders to drop out. United Russia has made great efforts to avoid losing races, in part because its future is in question, Mr. Makarkin said.

“They want to win as many elections as possible with as few scandals as possible,” he said. “The priority is survival.”

Parliamentary elections last December showed that support for United Russia was strikingly low in a range of industrial regions surrounding Moscow — a fact that was lost amid reports of vote rigging and large antigovernment protests.

The rising discontent seemed to be stanched by March, when Mr. Putin was elected president for a third time after a campaign of lavish pre-election spending and targeted television coverage meant to discredit the opposition.

Early results on Sunday in the Siberian city of Barnaul showed that United Russia had won just over 50 percent in elections for the city council. In Nizhny Tagil’s mayoral race, meanwhile, which has been styled as a pro-Putin stronghold, the United Russia candidate was leading with 92 percent of the vote.

Andrei Y. Buzin, head of election monitoring for Golos, a nonprofit organization, said the number of violations recorded on Sunday was probably no higher than in previous elections, but there were more reports because observers were both trained and more motivated.

In Bryansk, a Communist Party candidate told the Interfax news service that one of the party’s observers had approached a parked Mercedes, suspecting that people inside were distributing absentee ballots. The driver suddenly accelerated, and the car sped about 300 yards with the observer on its hood, said the candidate, Vadim Potomsky. The police in Bryansk later detained the driver and said they were investigating.

In Khimki, one of Ms. Chirikova’s supporters said election commission workers refused to display the voting list until reporters had left. The observer, Alla N. Chernysheva, said she believed that officials were adding more than 1,000 pro-government votes at Polling Station 3008, which is near the forest Ms. Chirikova campaigned to protect.

“This is one of the areas of Khimki where the protest is the greatest,” Ms. Chernysheva said. “People are angry and they’re trying to cover it up.”

Not everyone was impressed with Ms. Chirikova’s defiance. As he left a voting station with his wife, one voter, Dmitri Trevin, watched her give an impromptu news conference. “I’ll tell you one thing,” he said. “No matter what she is saying right now, they all change when they come into power.”

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