Moscow CNN  — 

Even before the first votes had been cast, Russia’s election result was in little doubt.

Amid allegations of widespread fraud, the country’s ruling party – utterly loyal to President Vladimir Putin – has secured another win: Another veto-proof two-thirds majority in parliament for United Russia.

But the cost of securing victory has grown, and the party’s margin of victory looks smaller this time around.

With 98% of ballots counted, the election commission said Monday that United Russia had won nearly 50% of the vote. The party won 54% of the vote in 2016.

Across the country there have been multiple reports of ballot boxes being stuffed with votes – sometimes caught on the electoral commission’s own CCTV cameras.

One video, from the Kemerovo region, shows a black-shirted election official awkwardly standing in front of a ballot box as a hand appears from behind a Russian flag and repeatedly stuffs papers inside.

In another, two women are heard laughing as they stuff a ballot box in what appears to be a crude attempt to falsify results.

Russia’s election commission says any fraudulent votes have been annulled. But critics say thousands of incidents, including ballot stuffing and forced voting, appear to have been ignored.

One major concern for observers was the fact that the election was extended over three full days, ostensibly to allow voters to socially distance during the Covid-19 pandemic. Critics say this has made monitoring the vote far more difficult.

A system of electronic voting has also been rolled out in several regions, allowing people to cast their ballots online. Even President Putin himself – in quarantine after members of his inner circle tested positive for coronavirus – was shown voting this way.

However, there are questions about how that was possible since Putin has previously insisted that he does not use a mobile phone. Under the Russian e-voting system, online votes must be verified using a mobile phone.

More importantly, critics have expressed concerns that online votes are easier to manipulate. The fact that online results appear to have taken longer to count than paper ballots has only fueled suspicions.

It’s unclear why such crude methods of vote-rigging may have been employed given the lengths that Russian authorities have gone to in order to ensure most opposition groups were barred from fielding any candidates at all.

While the Kremlin’s most prominent critic, Alexey Navalny, languishes in a prison camp, his anti-corruption organization has been branded “extremist” and banned. Its supporters and associates have been blocked by law from running for office. Some have fled into exile.

Opposition politicians who did make it onto the ballot have reported experiencing extraordinary pressure.

One candidate for the Yabloko political party in the Russian city of St. Petersburg found that two rivals had assumed his name and grown beards to look like him on the ballot paper, in an apparent effort to confuse voters.

To circumvent the restrictions, and to try to dent the ruling party’s results, Navalny’s team promoted “smart voting,” encouraging Russians to vote for those candidates with the best chance of unseating incumbent MPs from the ruling party.

The main beneficiary of that campaign, and perhaps of a national protest vote, appears to have been the Communists, long the second biggest party in country, and now seeing a significant boost at the expense of United Russia.

But the Communists, once all-powerful in Russia, have for years complied with President Putin and there is no indication that will change any time soon. The two parties projected to finish behind the Communists – the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and A Just Russia – also typically support the Kremlin.

At the end of a marathon election, Russia’s opposition has been well and truly sidelined, even cast out of the political sphere. This vast country remains firmly in the grip of the strongman president who has led it for the past 22 years.