Putin's party leads Russia poll, some surprises

MOSCOW: Russia's dominant ruling party United Russia was leading regional elections but suffered a string of surprising setbacks against the background of the economic crisis, results showed Monday.

United Russia -- whose overall leader is Prime Minister Vladimir Putin -- won less than half the vote in some polls for regional parliaments and in a stunning reverse lost the election for mayor in the Siberian city of Irkutsk.

The polls Sunday only involved some of Russia's regions but were being closely watched by the authorities after unusual displays of discontent in recent weeks rattled the Kremlin.

United Russia won over 48 percent of the vote in elections for the local parliament in the Khabarovsk region, a key economic hub in the Far East on the border with China, results published by the central election commission showed.

In the region of Sverdlovsk that includes the Urals economic capital of Yekaterinburg it polled just 40 percent of the vote. However in the sparsely populated Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Region it won 86 percent.

The most unsettling news for United Russia was in Irkutsk, a city of over half-a-million people, where its candidate in elections for mayor was thrashed by a candidate supported by the Communist Party.

Communist-supported Viktor Kondrashov won over 62 percent of the vote, while United Russia candidate Sergei Serebrennikov could only muster 27 percent, results showed.

Adding to United Russia's Siberian woes, in the mayoral elections for the nearby city of Ust-Ilimsk the candidate of opposition party A Fair Russia also trounced the United Russia candidate.

The speaker of Russia's lower house of parliament and top United Russia official Boris Gryzlov admitted that these local elections had been tougher than the last set of polls in October due to rises in utility prices.

"We need losses at a regional level so we recognise the causes of these losses and we correct them," he said in comments published on the United Russia website.

Another top United Russia leader, Vyacheslav Volodin, emphasised that the results showed Russia were continuing to support the political course of Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev.

In the battles for local parliaments, United Russia's closest challenger was the Communist Party which polled around 20 percent in the key zones. "The electorate has listened to us," said its leader Gennady Zyuganov.

Third place went to the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of veteran firebrand Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

The anti-Kremlin liberal opposition, which has no seats in the national parliament, remained sidelined while turnout in several of the main regions reached little more than 30 percent.

Close attention is being paid to developments in Russia's regions after 10,000 people attended a protest in the western exclave of Kaliningrad in January, by far the biggest protest since the economic crisis began.

The organisers had planned to hold a fresh mass protest in Kaliningrad on March 20 but called it off at the weekend, saying this was the only way to prevent bloody clashes with police.

Although activists accuse Russia of major democratic shortcomings, the head of the Russian Election Commission Vladimir Churov said after the polls that "the election system in Russia and the electors are the best in the world."