Russians across 11 time zones voted on Sunday in a Parliamentary election seen as a referendum on President Vladimir Putin's hold on power even after he quits office in May with a marginalised opposition crying foul.
In all 11 parties are in the fray for 450 seats in the State Duma to be allocated on proportional basis, but pollsters suggest United Russia led by Putin, a former KGB agent who remained at the helm for seven years, will gain a clear majority by bagging over 60 per cent votes.
"Thanks God, election campaign is over.... I am in a good, festival-like mood," said a beaming Putin, who had earlier warned his countrymen that Russia would face disintegration if his party is not voted to power, before casting his vote here.
Heavy turnout was reported in the eastern parts of Russia with 109 million registered voters expected to vote in the 95,000 polling booths across the country.
The vote is the first national ballot under new election laws introduced by Putin which have been criticised as a step to marginalise anti-Kremlin parties.
Apart from the seats being awarded proportionately to ballot share, unlike earlier when half of the seats were filled by direct contest, a party must receive at least 7 per cent of the national vote to get any seat- up from 5 per cent.
Gennady Zyuganov, chief of Russian Communist Party, the only potent opposition in the country, on Sunday termed the ballot as the "most complex and undemocratic" and alleged several irregularities.
Seeing a large contingent of mediapersons at the polling booth in Central Moscow, Zyuganov joked "I think you are here by mistake, President of Russia will vote at a different polling station, here I will cast my vote."
Former chess champion and Putin critic Garry Kasparov, whose political grouping is one of the several barred from taking part in the polls, had described the election as a "farce".
Russian Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov and other senior leaders also cast their ballots in different polling stations in the capital.
The other parties expected to clear the seven per cent threshold are the Communist Party, the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party, and probably A Just Russia, led by Kremlin loyalist upper house chairman Sergei Mironov.
According to Chairman of Central Election Commission (CEC) Vladimir Churov the turnout in Chukotka region in the countries far east was over 70 per cent where the voting began 11 hours ahead of Moscow and Central Russia due to the time difference.
As the voting comes to close in more eastern regions like Krasnoyarsk and Magadan the CEC noted higher turnout than last Duma polls in 2003. By noon the average turnout was 12 per cent, slightly higher than in 2003.
Nearly 300 internatioal observers are overseeing the poll which will set the stage for Presidential elections next year. The elections-monitoring arm of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe abandoned its plans to send a big team after authorities sanctioned the visit of only two of its memebrs.
The new Duma election law allows Putin to claim his parliament seat after quitting top Kremlin job in May 2008.
Putin, who is not allowed by law to stand again for Presidency, had decried his opposition as "foreign-fed jackals" and outrightly told his western critics "not to poke their running nose" in Russia's domestic affairs.
He urged his countrymen to vote for the United Russia to keep Yeltsin-era politicos out of power. "I am confident that the voter has already made his choice and now they only need to come and cast their votes for the party, whose platform is more convincing," Putin said.
Being Sunday, most of the voters in big cities and towns got up late and preferred to vote later in the afternoon. Polling booths opened at 8 AM local time and are to close at 20 hrs local time with last polling booths closing at 23.30 IST in Russia's Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad.
In Moscow three thousand polling booths opened at 10.30 IST and elderly people were seen entering the polling stations mostly set up in schools.