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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

United Russia Voters Follow Red Trail

In the past, it was supporters of the Communist Party who often were wary of disclosing their political preferences. But this year, it seems to be voters for the pro-Kremlin United Russia party who have decided to keep their choice secret.

United Russia won the State Duma elections with nearly 37 percent of the vote, according to preliminary results released Monday, while the MT-Soros-RenCap exit poll placed the party's lead lower, at 34.1 percent.

One in five of those interviewed refused to participate in the exit poll -- a murky faction that may account for the discrepancy in the results. But barring major errors or vote rigging, it also suggests the largest single group that refused to disclose its preferences may be United Russia voters.

In the mid-1990s, public opinion polls usually erred by underestimating the number of Communist voters, a trend that was widely attributed to a fear or unwillingness to disclose staunch pro-Soviet views.

"But during the last year, the tendency has changed. Those who voted for the 'party of power' don't want to express their opinion," said Andrei Milyokhin, director of the ROMIR Monitoring polling agency, which conducted the MT-Soros-RenCap exit poll.

Other explanations may account for United Russia's lower rating in exit polls.

One is that researchers had little access to army units, prisons and remote regions -- areas where voters are believed to have been under heavy pressure to vote for United Russia.

"This is quite a serious thing. We are talking about several categories here, about army units and penitentiaries that together comprise some 2 million people," said Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Another possibility is that the vote was rigged to increase United Russia's lead, as some critics claim.

But many analysts dismissed the possibility.

"I am almost certain that the results were not falsified," Kremlin-connected political analyst Sergei Markov said. "Who would want falsification just to raise it [the vote count] from 34 percent to 37 percent?"

MT-Soros-RenCap approached 42,828 voters in 150 cities and towns in 40 regions. Some 21.7 percent of those asked refused to participate the poll, which has a margin of error of 3.5 percent.

While the poll found that United Russia won 34.1 percent of the vote, the Communists took second place with 13.2 percent.

An exit poll published by the Public Opinion Foundation gave United Russia 37.1 percent and the Communists 13.2 percent. No margin of error was given in the poll.

The high number of voters declining to participate in exit polls is common for Russia, where on average of 20 percent of people approached by pollsters in any public opinion survey refuse to be questioned, said Yury Levada, a prominent sociologist and the head of the independent polling agency VTsIOM-A.

The number is much lower in developed democracies, sociologists said, and Russians' reticence may be due to wariness bred by seven decades of Soviet persecution of independent thinking, or to natural self-consciousness.

Any refusal to disclose a preference for United Russia, however, may have little political basis. United Russia enjoys the public support of President Vladimir Putin and the open backing of local administration officials, and its supporters have no reason to fear reprisals.

But many of United Russia's supporters are middle-aged conservatives who favor strong government -- the same type of people who made up the core Communist electorate in the mid-1990s, analysts said.

Communist voters of the 1990s and United Russia's current voters "have one thing in common -- they are cautious, conservative pensioners. That was the reason for reticence then, and that is the reason now," Markov said.

"The majority of United Russia voters are conservative people, wary and frightful and generally unwilling to say something about themselves," he said.

ROMIR on Monday was analyzing data on the age, education and income of participants in the exit poll to put together a social profile of United Russia voters.