Putin supporters hang on amid voter fraud charges

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KHIMKI, Russia -- President Vladimir Putin's loyalists appeared likely Sunday to retain their hold in thousands of local elections that offered slightly more room for competition, but were marred by opposition claims of vote manipulations.

The Kremlin eased stiff election laws in response to major protests against Putin's rule last winter, but introduced new restrictions after the demonstrations abated. Kremlin-approved governors and mayors are expected to preserve their seats and the Kremlin's main United Russia party will likely keep dominating local legislatures and municipal councils.

In one of the most visible races Sunday, opposition activist Yevgeniya Chirikova was challenging the government-backed acting mayor of Khimki, a town just outside Moscow.

Chirikova, a 35-year-old mother of two, filed two petitions -- alleging her rival broke campaign rules and that election officials manipulated voter lists. Authorities rejected her complaints, and it was unclear when a court could issue its verdict.

"If the elections were fair, then I'd have some kind of chance," Chirikova said Sunday. "But since the elections in this country are what they are, then my chances are different."

Chirikova's supporters allege that her Kremlin-backed rival is prepared to go to any lengths to prevent her winning, citing alleged ballot irregularities and even threats of violence to observers.

But with turnout low at around 25 percent and antipathy toward Chirikova from pension-age voters high, few expect she had much chance of winning in the first place.

Responding to protests that drew up to 100,000 people in Moscow, the Kremlin had restored direct elections of provincial governors, which had been abolished by Putin nearly eight years ago. But after Putin's inauguration for a third presidential term in May, he struck back at his foes with repressive bills, and the government put forward new requirements for the gubernatorial vote to retain control.

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