MOSCOW President Dmitry Medvedev said Monday a crushing win by Russia's ruling party in local elections proved its moral and legal right to run the regions, but the opposition and independent observers said the voting was rigged.
Medvedev backed the outcome of Sunday's polls even though two months ago he had said "new democratic times are beginning" and promised to break the party's near-monopoly on power.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's United Russia was confirmed as the strongest party in just about every poll, retaining power in key locations, including elections for Moscow city, the most populous and affluent region.
Putin nominally leads the party which is backed by Medvedev.
Russia has been badly hit by the economic crisis, with GDP set to contract by more than 8.5 percent this year and the number of unemployed nearly 50 percent higher than a year ago, exposing the country's dependence on energy exports for revenue.
Just three opposition members, all from the Communist Party, were set to enter Moscow's 52-seat parliament, with all other seats going to United Russia, based on forecast results giving it 66 percent of votes but more than 90 percent of seats.
"The party has proved that it has a right, not only moral, but also legal, to form executive administrations in the regions. The outcome of yesterday's elections is convincing proof of that," Medvedev said during talks with party leaders.
Regional, mayoral and district polls were held in 76 of Russia's 83 regions, comprising 30 million voters. Results were still being confirmed Monday but all showed the same pattern.
Independent poll watchdog Golos and opposition parties said there had been a much lower turnout than reported, widespread ballot stuffing and voter intimidation.
Golos representative Alexander Kinev said that if electoral standards are not improved and those guilty of violations are not punished, Russia will revert to its communist-era system with no links between the administration and the public.
"The people's distrust toward formal institutions and election procedures will grow. This means that just like in Soviet times, when there were strict formal institutions, but people instead led their own lives," said Kinev.
"Our government likes to complain that people do not obey the laws. What can they talk about if the procedure by which the government was elected does not inspire confidence?" he said.
A small crowd of protesters chanting "Shame!" gathered at Pushkin Square in central Moscow, but was soon dispelled by police who detained about 20 demonstrators.
"Everyone knew that United Russia will win whatsoever using its administrative resources, but the way the whole thing was arranged is shameful," Sergei Udaltsov, a coordinator of a leftist youth movement the Left Front, told Reuters.
Financial markets anticipated the results but a backlash against the outcome could have an effect, said UniCredit Bank analyst Vladimir Osakovsky in a research note.
Medvedev endorsed the Central Electoral Commission's view that few major violations were reported, dashing the hopes of some opposition activists that he might criticize the poll.
"The elections were conducted in an organized way. This indicates that the election campaign was organized in compliance with all legislative requirements. In any case, as I understand, no major violations have been registered," Medvedev said.
Opposition group Solidarity said the results were less credible in Moscow than those from turbulent Chechnya, and urged Medvedev to stand by his comments backing more democracy.
The communists estimated that in some areas of the capital, their own tallies gave them more than a third of all votes, although the official results were much lower, the party stated on its website www.kprf.ru, without giving full details.
One party official, V.D. Ulas, said in the Sokol area of the capital no more than 400 people had voted, but 1,200 ballots were found in the ballot box. "The violations are so outrageous I can't understand why the authorities are doing it," he said.
(Reporting by Conor Sweeney; Editing by David Stamp)