updated 12/10/2003 6:29:15 PM ET 2003-12-10T23:29:15

 The upper house of parliament on Wednesday set March 14 as the date for Russia’s next presidential election which President Vladimir Putin was expected win by a large margin, but flamboyant nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky immediately announced a challenge.

Zhirinovsky’s party came in a strong third in Russia’s parliamentary elections Sunday. In announcing his candidacy he said his platform included establishment of an authoritarian regime.

“I hope to get not lower than the second place,” Zhirinovsky told a news conference, punctuating his comments with frenetic gestures that have become a trademarks since he burst onto Russia’s political scene after the 1991 Soviet collapse.

Zhirinovsky, a deputy speaker of parliament, has normally directed his party to side with Putin supporters in parliament.

Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, meanwhile, accused the Central Elections Commission of falsifying at least 3.5 million ballots in favor of the pro-Kremlin party in the Russia’s parliamentary elections.

“Voter turnout was not 56 percent, as the Central Elections Committee said, but 52.58 percent,” Zyuganov said.

United Russia's gains
The leading pro-Kremlin party United Russia, whose main plank is its loyalty to Putin, swept the Sunday vote for the lower house of parliament, winning a large majority of seats by handily defeating Zyuganov’s opposition Communists. The nation’s two main Western-oriented parties were voted out of the legislature altogether.

Zyuganov accused Alexander Veshnyakov, chairman of the Central Election Commission, of adding at least 3.5 million ballots “in order to extend United Russia’s base.”

According to parallel vote counting conducted by the Communist party, both of the Western-oriented parties, Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces, passed the 5 percent threshold, earning them a place in the State Duma.

Veshnyakov dismissed Zyuganov’s accusations as “complete lack of professionalism and politicking.”

Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, or LDPR, won 11.6 percent of the votes, according to preliminary results.

Despite his fiery nationalist rhetoric and sometimes bigoted statements, Zhirinovsky’s party has tended to toe the Kremlin line in key Duma votes, and its success in the elections is likely to add to Putin’s influence over an already pliant parliament.

Zhirinovsky presented a six-year plan for his party that calls for the establishment of an “authoritarian regime” in Russia and for specific changes that would increase the power of the president.

It would merge Russia’s 89 regions into 15 provinces with leaders directly appointed by the president and would do away with what it called the “irrelevant” Federation Council, the upper parliament.

The speaker of the upper house or Federation Council, Sergei Mironov, said that the date for the presidential election had been approved unanimously. Now would-be candidates can announce their intentions and start their campaigns.

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