12/03/2007, 00.00
RUSSIA
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Putin’s expected landslide marred by suspected electoral fraud

With 97 per cent of the vote counted, United Russia led by the Russian president wins big with 64.1 per cent of the vote. Four parties will be represented in Russia’s State Duma but only one will be really in the opposition. Turnout is high, reaching 99 per cent in Chechnya, but many international observers denounce illegalities, including a raffle for TVs in some polling stations.

Moscow (AsiaNews) – The Kremlin “acted as though it practically elected the parliament,” Kimmo Kiljunen, deputy head of the parliamentary assembly of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), said on Echo of Moscow radio. In a statement released this morning OCSE observers said that whilst the vote was generally well organised with technical improvements over the previous poll, the elections were marred by an atmosphere in which political competition was limited, abuses of power were frequent and media coverage was heavily favourable to the party in power. By contrast, Russia’s Election Commission said that the elections went off regularly.

Results

A day after voting to renew the State Duma, unofficial results based on 97 per cent of all ballots counted confirm pre-election surveys that gave an overwhelming victory to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The first good news for him was the high turnout rate which reached around 60 per cent of the 108 million eligible voters compared to 55.7 per cent in 2003. This result included a 99.1 per cent turnout in Chechnya according to the Election Commission.

These results further legitimise United Russia’s place as the majority party with 64.1 per cent compared to 37.6 in 2003. As the head of the party list Putin now can claim to be the ‘national leader.’

Like the president and his cronies, representatives of various religious groups—Orthodox, Catholics Muslims and Jews—insistently urged people to go out and vote.

The lower house of the Russian parliament now has four parties with only one in the opposition, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) under Gennady Zyuganov, which won 11.6 per cent.

Only two other parties won more than 7 per cent of the vote, the threshold necessary to elect members of parliament and both are pro-Kremlin. Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) took 8.2 per cent, and Sergey Mironov’s Fair Russia Party got 7.8 per cent. After redistribution of votes for parties that fell short of the threshold s, United Russia might even get the two-third majority (300 out of 450) needed to amend the constitution.

Tight security measures were in place for these elections. About 450,000 agents, including police and interior ministry personnel, were deployed in the various polling stations, 20,500 in Moscow alone.

But only 299 foreign observers were present, a third of what they were in 2003.

Electoral fraud

The OCSE was not the only group to criticise Russia’s electoral process. For Luc Van der Brande, who headed a Council of Europe delegation, the elections had some negative aspects, including the unprecedented example of a president still in office running in parliamentary elections.

For its part, the White House expressed concern for the many reports of “violations” in some areas of the country, and urged the Kremlin to investigate.

Even before voting was over KPRF leader Zyuganov complained about vast illegality, and today he expressed his intention of challenging the results in the Supreme Court.

Golos, an independent election monitoring agency created with US and European support, said it received more than 3,500 calls on its complaints hotline. They include various forms of pressure on voters by Putin’s party like hot food for elderly going to vote at lunch time and raffle prizes (TV sets and appliances) for voters who picked United Russia as well as “illegal” posters and graffiti near polling stations.

Unknown future

“Russian voters spoke in favour of United Russia, thus supporting President Putin's course,” and are “in favour of it being continued after the current president's second term ends,” said a Kremlin spokesman.

Under the current constitution a Russian president can only serve two terms. Putin is thus ineligible to run in the March 2008 presidential elections. But all points to Putin not easily giving up his current status.

Even seasoned politicians wonder what is in store for Russia. Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of opposition Yabloko party, believes that Putin has created [. . .] an authoritarian system in which he is like a hill in the desert, and nobody is around.” He added that now that the “time has come to make a transfer of power [. . .] he really, really has no idea how to do that. And nobody else has any idea.”

The guessing game surrounding the next president is made more complicated by the lack of open debate.

The various groups with interests at stake (oligarchs, secret services and regional bosses) dare not talk about fearing retaliation from Moscow.

But everyone agrees that whoever is the next candidate for the presidential chair, he’ll win only if he gets the endorsement of Tsar Vladimir, who is likely to wait in wings before making a comeback as master of the Kremlin. (MA)

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