[MOSCOW] President Vladimir Putin hailed the United Russia party's victory as early results showed it on course to increase its majority in the first parliamentary elections since a disputed ballot in 2011 sparked the biggest protests of his decade-and-a-half rule.
"We can already say that the party got a very good result - it won," Mr Putin said Sunday at a joint appearance with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, United Russia's chairman, at its headquarters in Moscow shortly after polling ended.
"The situation isn't easy and people want stability in society, in the political system."
The pro-Kremlin party had 53 per cent support with more than 40 per cent of ballots counted, according to Russia's central election commission.
Three other parties that are all broadly loyal to Putin, the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, the Communists and Fair Russia, also passed the five per cent barrier for seats in the State Duma.
Mr Putin, 63, is widely expected to seek re-election in March 2018. Anger over ballot-stuffing in 2011 sparked huge protests that continued through his return to the Kremlin in 2012.
The authorities reacted with new laws to suppress the opposition movement, including jailing activists. Mr Putin's popularity also hit record highs on a surge of patriotism after he annexed Crimea in 2014, even as international sanctions helped push the economy into recession.
Still, the Kremlin's concerned to prevent fraud allegations marring this contest and spurring a new wave of opposition to him.
United Russia "will have an absolute majority," Mr Medvedev said. While the party's support was similar to the 50 per cent it gained five years ago, it's expected to emerge with more than its current 238 seats after the authorities changed the election rules.
United Russia's candidates are also ahead in 191 of the 225 contests in individual constituencies with a quarter of votes counted, the central election commission reported.
Half of the new State Duma's 450 deputies will come from single-mandate constituencies, which were restored for the first time since 2003 in a change seen as favouring United Russia because of campaign support from the state apparatus and its dominant voter base.
"Everyone was sure of United Russia's victory," Igor Bunin, director of the Moscow-based Centre for Political Technologies, said by phone.
"Society is in a state of depression and has a siege mentality and people support Putin."
Russians are enduring the steepest decline in income in two decades amid an economic recession provoked by the collapse in oil prices. United Russia's support had appeared to suffer as a result, slumping in recent opinion polls to about 40 per cent from 60 per cent 18 months ago.
The ruling party may win two-thirds of seats in the parliament, which is sufficient to change the constitution, RIA Novosti reported, citing Alexei Zudin, a political scientist at the Moscow-based Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies.
Turnout for the elections was relatively low at 40 per cent, two hours before the close of polls, according to the election commission, with fewer than a third of voters taking part in Moscow and St Petersburg, the two largest cities.
In 2011, 60 per cent of the electorate voted. Mr Putin conceded the level of participation had fallen from previous years, but said it was still "high."
The low turnout was an indication of "voters' attitude to the ruling party," Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the Liberal Democratic Party's leader, told reporters in comments broadcast on Rossiya 24 television.
Still, after the mass protests five years ago at alleged vote falsifications, the elections proceeded in a "relatively fair" manner, said Mr Bunin. Local observers complained of fraudulent voting, though not on a widespread scale.
Golos, an independent monitoring group, said it received almost 700 complaints such as ballot-stuffing and multiple voting, including one in which a bus full of workers was seen at seven polling stations in Moscow. About 111 million people were eligible to vote at 94,000 polling stations.
The elections were "completely legitimate," with far fewer reports of voting irregularities than in previous elections, Ella Pamfilova, the head of Russia's central election commission, said, according to RIA Novosti.
In an effort to legitimise the vote, Mr Putin picked Ms Pamfilova, a long-time human-rights advocate, to head the election commission earlier this year, while Russia also invited about 500 observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
At the same time, Russia introduced tough restrictions on local monitors. Golos said it had to cut its presence in half compared with 2011 to 3,000-4,000 observers because of the new limits.
A preliminary report by the OSCE's observer mission noted the "low key" campaign and complaints about "misuse of administrative resources."
It also welcomed the new leadership of the central electoral commission, simplified registration for parties and the fact that independent candidates have been allowed to stand for election.
Smaller parties that failed to clear the five per cent barrier for representation via the party lists, such as the liberal Yabloko Party and the pro-business Growth, may win a few of the individual seats in the new parliament.
Still, with at most a handful of opposition lawmakers likely to get elected, Mr Putin can count on maintaining the status quo in parliament, where United Russia, the Communists, the Liberal Democratic Party and Fair Russia held all the seats in the previous Duma.