MOSCOW - The party loyal to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin appeared headed for a decisive victory last night in parliamentary elections, while nationalist and populist forces gained significant strength and seem likely to wind up playing a major role in the new legislature.
Meanwhile, the once-powerful Communist Party suffered its worst defeat since the collapse of the Soviet Union 12 years ago. And one of the nation's two small, long-suffering liberal parties lost significant ground.
United Russia, which boasted during the campaign that it was the "party of power" and offered no platform other than support for Russia's popular president, seemed poised to win about 40 percent of the vote, according to exit polls.
That will probably hand the party a plurality of the State Duma's 450 seats, analysts said, and preserve its domination of the legislature. But United Russia got nowhere near the landslide some analysts had expected, garnering about the same percentage that its predecessor, the pro-Putin Unity Party, received in 1999.
Rustam Orudzhev of Moscow's Science and Politics Foundation blamed United Russia's cautious strategy and colorless candidates for its less-than-spectacular success.
"Nobody knows the people who are in United Russia, and the party didn't take part in the debates," he said. "I think this was a great mistake. The party is also full of bureaucrats, and I think people understood that."
According to an exit poll conducted by the Public Opinion Foundation, the Communists got 13 percent of the vote, or about half what the party received in Duma elections in 1999.
Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov called the results "a disgusting performance." He alleged that his party was the victim of electoral fraud and threatened to try to have the results overturned in court.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said last week that there was "a clear bias in the state-owned media in support of United Russia and other pro-presidential parties." The international security group said the Communists received mostly negative coverage.
But Orudzhev said Zyuganov is mostly to blame. The Communist leader should have tried to attract younger voters, Orudzhev said, instead of continuing to woo pensioners with fond memories of the Soviet era.
"This was the reasonable result," the analyst said.
Russia's liberal parties were also expected to do poorly.
Yabloko, the pro-democracy reform party, was forecast to gain a meager 6 percent of the vote. The liberal, pro-business Union of Right Forces was expected to get less than 5 percent, about half what it received in 1999. Parties that do not get at least 5 percent do not win seats in parliament.
"The main result of this election is that the liberals have lost," said Sergei Markhov, director of the Institute of Political Studies.
A subdued election campaign drew about half of Russia's 109 million voters to the polls. Yelena Khobotova, 47, a Moscow shop owner, was one of millions to vote for United Russia's slate. But she says she did it with little enthusiasm.
"I would like to think things will get better" as a result of United Russia's success, she said. "But, really, what I believe is that it would not get any better if someone else won."
The ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, led by Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, seemed headed for a third-place finish, with an estimated 12 percent. The fiery orator, who sometimes throws punches at political opponents, typically supports the Kremlin on important votes.
The Homeland bloc, started just four months ago, seemed headed for fourth place, with about 9 percent. The party had demanded that the state seize the profits of companies that bought Russia's oil, mineral and timber industries from the government in the 1990s for a fraction of their value.
More than any other, the party seemed to capitalize on the wave of support by Russians for the arrest of billionaire Mikhail B. Khordokovsky, who owns the largest single stake in the giant Yukos Oil Co. Critics of the Kremlin say the arrest was politically motivated.
Homeland officials say they are independent of the Kremlin. But several political analysts here said the party was created by Putin supporters to weaken the Communists by siphoning off protest votes. They point out that the party's co-chairman is Putin's envoy to Russia's Baltic region of Kaliningrad and that it has received generous coverage on state-controlled television.
The proliferation of Homeland and other narrowly focused parties - including one called Rebirth-Party of Life, and another called Automobile Russia - confused some voters.
"United Russia and all the rest look the same," said Maria Nikitina, a 52-year-old engineer, as she left a Moscow polling station. She said she voted for the Communists.
Because United Russia expressed no clear agenda, it isn't clear what legislative initiatives Putin plans to pursue if elected to a second term in March as expected.