President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party was ahead with nearly 40% of the vote, early results showed Sunday, after a three-day election that followed an unprecedented crackdown on the opposition. 

With just more than 10% of the vote counted, United Russia had taken 39.2% , according to results released by the election commission.

The Communists were second with 24.7%, fllowed by the nationalist LDPR party with 9.5%.

Video: AFP

In the last elections to the lower house State Duma in 2016, United Russia received 54.2% of the vote and the Communists 13.3%. 

The vote came in the wake of a clampdown this year that saw Putin's best-known domestic foe Alexei Navalny jailed and his organisations banned as "extremist".

In the lead-up to the vote, all of Navalny's top allies were arrested or fled the country, with anyone associated with his groups kept from running.

Authorities also took drastic measures to deter Navalny's "Smart Voting" campaign, which guided voters on which candidates to support to have the best hope of denying Kremlin-aligned politicians a seat. 

In this election, most of its voting list consisted of Communist Party candidates. 

Kremlin 'blackmail'

The campaign's website was shut down and on Friday Apple and Google removed the "Smart Voting" app from their stores, causing an uproar among the opposition who accused them of giving in to Kremlin "blackmail".

Sources familiar with Google and Apple's decision told AFP the move was taken under pressure from Russian authorities, including threats to arrest the tech giants' local staff.

By late Friday, the popular Telegram messenger had also removed Navalny's "Smart Voting" bot, and by Sunday Google Docs and YouTube videos containing the lists of the recommended candidates had also been blocked.

Navalny's team promptly made new Google Docs and YouTube videos with the lists of candidates, and in a final pitch to voters from behind bars, the Kremlin critic wrote on Instagram: "Today is a day when your voice truly matters."

Turnout was at 45% according to the latest figures released by the election commission at 1500GMT.

Russian social media meanwhile was inundated with reports of ballot stuffing and military servicemen patrolling polling stations.

Critics also pointed to online voting, new limits on independent election observers and the polls being spread over three days - a move officials said was to reduce coronavirus risks - as presenting opportunities for fraud.

As of Sunday evening, independent election monitor Golos - which authorities branded a "foreign agent" ahead of the polls - had tracked over 4,500 reports of voting violations. 

Russia's interior ministry, however, told news agencies on Sunday evening that it had not registered any "significant violations".

Going into the lower house State Duma vote, United Russia party was polling at historic lows.

Surveys by state-run pollster VTsIOM showed fewer than 30% of Russians planning to vote for the party, down at least 10 percentage points ahead of the last parliamentary election in 2016.

'Trust' in Putin

While 68-year-old Putin remains popular, United Russia has seen its support drop as living standards decline following years of economic stagnation.

But the ruling party was expected to keep its two-thirds majority in the lower house, allowing it to push through legislative changes without resistance.

In addition to United Russia, 13 more parties were running in the elections, but they are widely seen as token opposition.

"There is no one to vote for," Andrei, a 33-year-old IT professional who declined to give his last name, told AFP in Moscow. 

He cast his ballot in the "sham" elections, he said, to "at least show some kind of protest against the current government". 

But Anna Kartashova, a 50-year-old pharmaceutical company manager in Moscow, said she voted for United Russia because she "simply trusts" Putin.

"We just don't see anyone else we can trust in the current political landscape," she said.

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