Vladimir Putin was quick to declare the landslide victory for pro-Kremlin candidates in Sunday's elections to be a sign that Russian democracy is gaining strength. A more objective assessment of the polls, however, would be that it is the power of the president that has been greatly reinforced. The big winner in the elections for the legislative Duma, the lower house, was the United Russia party, which has a very simple philosophy: support Mr Putin. Along with its allies, the party is expected to form an overwhelming majority in the legislature. Voters also backed parties standing on nationalist platforms, targeting the rich and generally pursuing policies that tend to hark back to the Soviet era. Extreme nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky's somewhat inappropriately named Liberal Democratic Party gained more than 10 per cent of votes. The once all-powerful Communist Party suffered huge losses. But also among the losers were two parties supporting liberal policies, including respect for the rule of law and co-operation with the west, which were virtually ousted from the legislature. A new era in Russian politics may be dawning. It might be argued that Mr Putin is right to claim a victory for democracy, in the sense that the successful parties reflect views held by many Russians. Nationalist sentiment remains strong, wealthy tycoons are resented and there is disillusionment with democracy. But it cannot be taken for granted that these polls reflected the will of the people. As election observers have complained, United Russia was able to make good use of state resources to boost its campaign. And Mr Putin's control of the media ensured it was shamelessly used to sway voters in the party's favour, to the detriment of its opposition. The outcome is a distorted election that has handed Mr Putin virtually total control over the legislative programme. With support likely from two-thirds of the lawmakers, he could secure changes to the constitution - perhaps even extending the period he is allowed to remain in office. All in all, the elections threaten a worrying turning back of the clock to an authoritarian, nationalistic, anti-business government supported by the Duma. But much will depend on the use to which Mr Putin puts his newly acquired source of power. The president remains popular both inside and outside Russia. He has stabilised the economy and halted the chaos that followed the immediate end of the Soviet era, while building bridges with the United States. For Russia to continue to progress, Mr Putin must resist the temptation to roll back democratic reforms or amend the constitution in order to maintain his grip on power. Contrary to the opinion of nationalist Mr Zhirinovsky, Russia does not need a new tsar.