Several thousand protesters took to the streets Monday night and accused Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s party of rigging this weekend’s parliamentary election in which it won the largest share of the seats. It was perhaps the biggest opposition rally in years and ended with police detaining about 300 activists. A group of several hundred marched toward the Central Elections Commission near the Kremlin, but were stopped by riot police and taken away in buses. Estimates of the number of protesters ranged from 5,000 to 10,000. They chanted “Russia without Putin” and accused his United Russia party of stealing votes. In St. Petersburg, police detained about 120 protesters.
United Russia won about 50 percent of Sunday’s vote, a result that opposition politicians and election monitors said was inflated because of ballot-box stuffing and other vote fraud. It was a significant drop from the last election, when the party took 64 percent. Pragmatically, the loss of seats in the State Duma appears to mean little because two of the three other parties winning seats have been reliable supporters of government legislation.
Nevertheless, it was a substantial symbolic blow to a party that had become virtually indistinguishable from the state itself. The result has also energized the opposition and poses a humbling challenge to Putin, the country’s dominant figure, in his drive to return to the presidency. Putin, who became prime minister in 2008 because of presidential term limits, will run for a third term in March, and some opposition leaders saw the parliamentary election as a game-changer for what had been presumed to be his easy stroll back to the Kremlin.