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Putin's party victorious

Some call the parliament vote rigged. U.S. urges a probe.

MOSCOW - Russian President Vladimir V. Putin's party secured a triumph in parliamentary elections yesterday, giving the Kremlin leader the mandate he sought to exert his will over Russia even after his presidency ends in the spring.

While on paper the election was about picking 450 lawmakers for parliament's lower chamber, the State Duma, Putin transformed it into a popularity contest centered on him and his nearly eight years as president.

The election went as expected for his party, United Russia, which had 63 percent of the vote with nearly three-fourths of votes tallied. It will likely now have a majority in the State Duma large enough to change the constitution.

Its only opposition in the chamber will be the Communist Party, which trailed far behind with 11 percent of the vote.

What Putin will do with yesterday's overwhelming vote of confidence will be watched closely by Russians and the West. He has been cryptic in remarks about his future, emphasizing that he expects to continue to wield influence after he steps down in May without saying what vehicle he will use to do so.

"The vote affirmed the main idea, that Vladimir Putin is the national leader, and that the people support his course," said Boris Gryzlov, the Duma speaker and a United Russia leader.

For Washington, the election likely foretells continued tempestuous relations with the Kremlin. Russia under Putin has adopted an aggressive, antagonistic policy toward the Bush administration on a range of issues, from Iran and energy security to U.S. plans for a missile defense system in Eastern Europe.

But for many Russians, the resounding victory of United Russia validates Putin's agenda for governance, which has relied on the country's oil and natural gas wealth to resurrect the economy from the chaos and poverty the country endured throughout the 1990s after the Soviet Union fell apart.

"Putin has done more for this country in eight years than what other leaders have done over 70 years," said Valentina Zhenkova, 65, a retired hairstylist, after voting at a children's music school near downtown Moscow.

Though Putin has evolved into one of Russia's most popular leaders in decades, much of that popularity has been crafted by the Kremlin's ever-increasing influence over the media and civil society and its suppression of dissent.

An opposition movement led by former chess champion Garry Kasparov has been neutralized; state-controlled media outlets ignored Kasparov and his street rallies were swiftly dispersed. After his last rally in Moscow on Nov. 24, Russian authorities jailed him for five days.

"On Monday, we will go to the Russian Central Election Commission and bring flowers there, because we consider this to be the funeral of Russian democracy," Kasparov said yesterday. "They're not just rigging the vote. They're raping the democratic system."

While Putin's decision in late October to lead United Russia's ticket all but assured the party of a convincing victory, Russian authorities unleashed a huge effort to ensure opposition parties stood no chance of jeopardizing his bid for a landslide win.

Authorities across Russia confiscated millions of campaign leaflets and flyers printed by opposition groups.

Doctors, teachers and workers were ordered to vote with absentee ballots at their workplaces and pressured into voting for the ruling party, according to Golos, a Russian election watchdog group.

The Bush administration yesterday called on Russia to investigate claims the vote was manipulated.

"We expressed our concern regarding the use of state administrative resources in support of United Russia, the bias of the state-owned or influenced media in favor of United Russia, [and] intimidation of political opposition," said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the National Security Council.

Europe's primary election-observer body, the election monitoring arm of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, opted to not send an observer team after Russian authorities balked at issuing visas to the group.

United Russia's landslide victory also puts the ruling party in the driver's seat for the presidential election March 2. Putin has yet to indicate whom he will endorse as successor, an announcement that most Russians expect will amount to an anointment.