MOSCOW — Opponents of Vladimir Putin have alleged large-scale vote rigging in the country's election over the weekend, which looks set to return an emphatic victory for the ruling United Russia party.
Some 98 percent of ballots had been counted by Monday afternoon local time, with the country's Central Election Commission declaring nearly half of the votes for United Russia.
The Communist Party, which usually serves as one of the Kremlin-friendly opposition parties and received 20 percent of the vote, called the election a sham and said a new digital voting system had been used to deprive government opponents of a victory in Moscow.
The Communists say they stand to lose a number of races that the paper ballots show them winning. Communist Party deputy leader Dmitry Novikov said: “We will prove to the country that it needs to rebel and fight against digital innovations.”
Some Moscow-based Communists who felt cheated called for a protest in the Russian capital Monday evening. The central square they named as the venue was sealed off by police Monday afternoon, Reuters reported.
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United Russia won 54 percent of the vote in 2016, the last time a vote was held.
The scale of this week's projected victory means United Russia will have more than two-thirds of the deputies in the 450-seat State Duma lower house of Parliament. This will enable it to continue to push through laws without having to rely on other parties.
The Kremlin hailed the result, saying United Russia, which Putin helped found, had confirmed its role as the leading party. It said the election had been competitive, open and honest.
"The Communists have improved their results and there are new parties that have done well," said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who praised the way the election had been conducted.
Electoral authorities said they had voided any results at voting stations where there had been obvious irregularities and that the overall contest had been fair.
Other opponents agree the race was not clean. "With such a colossal number of violations, the results of the State Duma elections cannot be recognized as clean, honest or legitimate," said Lyubov Sobol, an ally of the jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny whose movement was declared extremist in June by a court.
Sobol had hoped to run for Parliament herself but Navalny's allies were barred from taking part after the extremism designation. Media and nongovernmental organizations that are critical of the Kremlin were also targeted by the authorities in the election run-up.
Navalny's allies had organized a tactical voting campaign designed to drain support from United Russia, whose popularity is lower than it used to be because of a malaise over faltering living standards and Navalny's allegations of corruption.
Authorities had tried to block the so-called Smart Voting initiative online.
The outcome is unlikely to change the political landscape, with Putin, who has been in power as president or prime minister since 1999, still dominating before the next presidential election in 2024.
Putin has yet to say whether he will run. He was due to speak later Monday.
The 68-year-old leader remains a popular figure with many Russians who credit him with standing up to the West and restoring national pride.
The near-complete results showed the Communist Party finishing in second, followed by the nationalist LDPR party and the Fair Russia party with just over 7 percent each. All three parties usually back the Kremlin on most key issues.
A new party called New People appeared to have squeezed into parliament with just over 5 percent.
At a celebratory rally at United Russia's headquarters broadcast on state television, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, an ally of the Russian leader, shouted "Putin! Putin! Putin!" to a flag-waving crowd that echoed his chant.
The Kremlin denies a politically driven crackdown and says individuals are prosecuted for breaking the law. Both it and United Russia denied any role in the registration process for candidates.
Matthew Bodner reported from Moscow, and Patrick Smith reported from London.