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RUSSIA – Allies of President Vladimir Putin comfortably won a parliamentary election, early results showed on Monday, but low turnout suggested a softening of enthusiasm for the ruling elite 18 months before the next presidential election.

The ruling United Russia party won 51 percent in Sunday’s election, according to a preliminary central election commission tally after a quarter of the votes had been counted.

That would allow the party, which was founded by Putin and benefits from his popularity, to extend its dominance in the lower house of parliament, or Duma. An exit poll also had United Russia as the overwhelming winner.

Putin, speaking to United Russia campaign staff a few minutes after polling stations closed on Sunday night, said the win showed voters still trusted the leadership despite an economic slowdown made worse by Western sanctions over Ukraine.

Putin’s aides are likely to use the result as a springboard for his own campaign for re-election in 2018, though he has not yet confirmed that he will seek another term.

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“We can say with certainty that the party has achieved a very good result; it’s won,” Putin said at the United Russia headquarters, where he arrived together with his ally, Dmitry Medvedev, who is prime minister and the party’s leader.

Alluding to the spluttering economy, which is forecast to shrink this year by at least 0.3 percent, Putin said: “We know that life is hard for people, there are lots of problems, lots of unresolved problems. Nevertheless, we have this result.”

Other parties trailed far behind United Russia.

According to the incomplete official vote count, the populist LDPR party was in second place with 15.1 percent, the Communists were in third on 14.9 percent and the left-of-centre Just Russia party was fourth with 6.4 percent.

All three of those parties tend to vote with United Russia on crunch issues in parliament, and avoid direct criticism of Putin.

In the last election for the Duma, in 2011, United Russia won 49 percent of the vote.

There were some reports of voting irregularities. Reuters reporters at one polling station in the Mordovia region of central Russia witnessed several people casting their ballot, then coming back later and voting again. Election chiefs said were was so far no evidence of large-scale cheating.

After the last election, anger at ballot-rigging prompted large protests in Moscow, and the Kremlin will be anxious to avoid a repetition of that.

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