Moscow: Vladimir Putin’s ruling party clung to a much-reduced majority in parliament on Monday, after an election that showed growing weariness with the man who has dominated Russia for more than a decade and plans to return to the presidency next year.

Back in office? Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (left) and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at United Russia headquarters on Saturday. Photo: Yuri Kochetkov/AP

In the biggest electoral setback for Putin since he rose to power in 1999, the Central Election Commission said United Russia was set to lose 77 seats in the state Duma and end up with 238, a slim majority in the 450-member lower house.

Medvedev, who led the party into the election at Putin’s behest, said voters had sent “a signal to the authorities" and hinted that officials in regions where the party did badly could face dismissal if they do not shape up.

“United Russia did not do too well in a series of regions, but not because people refuse to trust the party itself...but simply because local functionaries irritate them," he said. “They look and they say...if that’s United Russia, there’s no way I’m going to vote for him."

Opponents said even United Russia’s official result—just under 50% of the vote—was inflated by fraud. The leader of the Communist Party, on target to increase its representation from 57 to 92 seats, said the election was the dirtiest since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Although Putin is still likely to win a presidential election next March, Sunday’s result could dent the authority of the man who has ruled for 12 years with a mixture of hardline security policies, political acumen and showmanship, but who was booed and jeered after a martial arts bout last month.

“Many Russians voted against the system and Putin is the head of that system," said Stanislav Kucher, a commentator with Kommersant FM radio station.

“Putin has a very difficult choice. To survive politically, he needs to reform, but he can only reform if he gets rid of many vested interests in the ruling circle. To stay as he is means the opposite of political survival."

Putin has cultivated a tough man image with stunts such as riding a horse bare chested, tracking tigers and flying a fighter plane. But the public appears to have wearied of the antics.

Many voters, fed up with widespread corruption, refer to United Russia as the party of swindlers and thieves, and resent the huge gap between the rich and poor. Some fear Putin’s return to the presidency may herald economic and political stagnation.

Putin and Medvedev, the protege he ushered into the Kremlin when he faced a legal bar on a third consecutive term in 2008, made a brief appearance at a subdued meeting at United Russia headquarters late on Sunday.

Medvedev said United Russia, which had previously held a two-thirds majority, allowing it to change the constitution without opposition support, was prepared to forge alliances on certain issues to secure backing for legislation.

“This is an optimal result which reflects the real situation in the country," Putin, 59, said. “Based on this result, we can guarantee stable development of our country."

But there was little to cheer for Putin who has dominated Russian politics since he became acting president when Boris Yeltsin quit at the end of 1999 and was elected head of state later.

His path back to the presidency may now be a little more complicated, with signs growing that voters feel cheated by his decision to swap jobs with Medvedev next year and dismayed by the prospect of more than a decade more of one man at the helm.

The Communists made big gains and officials projections put the left-leaning Just Russia on 64 Duma seats, up from 38, and Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s nationalist LDPR on 56, up from 40.

Many of the votes were cast in protest against United Russia rather than in support of communist ideals because the Party is seen by some Russians as the only credible opposition force.

“I voted against United Russia to support some kind of opposition in the country," said Tamara Alexandrovna, a pensioner in Moscow. “I’ve seen a one-party system and we cannot go back to that."

Opposition parties complained of election irregularities in several parts of Russia.

The websites of a Western-financed electoral watchdog and at least two liberal media outlets were taken down by hacker attacks that some said were engineered by state authorities to silence allegations of violations.

Opposition parties say the election was unfair from the start because of authorities’ support for United Russia with cash, influence and television air time. International observers added weight to those claims.

The result is a blow for Medvedev, whose legitimacy to become prime minister in a planned job swap with Putin after the presidential vote could now be in question.

Putin has as yet no serious personal rivals as Russia’s leader. He remains the ultimate arbiter between the clans that control the world’s biggest energy producer.

Alexei Anishchuk, Guy Faulconbridge, Thomas Grove and Douglas Busvine contributed to this story.