Vladimir Putin's ruling party has clung to a much reduced majority in parliament after this weekend's election.

The vote showed growing weariness with the man who has dominated Russia for more than a decade and plans to return to the presidency next year.

His United Russia party got 49.5% of the vote yesterday, compared with 64% support four years ago. This was enough to take up 238 of the 450 seats in the lower house, according to almost complete results and projections.

The party received nearly one-third fewer votes than in 2007 and fell far short of the 315 seats it secured in the last State Duma election, making it the biggest electoral setback for Mr Putin since he rose to power in 1999.

Opponents said even this outcome 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 Mr Putin is still likely to win a presidential election next March, yesterday’s result could dent his authority.

Mr Putin has ruled for 12 years with a mixture of hardline security policies, political acumen and showmanship, but he was booed and jeered after a martial arts bout last month.

He 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 and his popularity, while still high, has fallen.

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 Mr Putin's return to the presidency may herald economic and political stagnation.

Mr Putin and Dimitry Medvedev, who took up the presidency in 2008 when Putin was forced to step down after serving a maximum two consecutive terms, made a brief appearance at a subdued meeting at United Russia headquarters late last night.

Mr 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.

Mr Putin’s 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 Mr 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 official 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.