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RUSSIA

Turnout Up as United Russia Takes 63%

Results released early Monday gave United Russia a crushing victory in Sunday's parliamentary elections after a campaign clearly aided by the popularity of President Vladimir Putin and, opponents say, smothering tactics by the authorities.

About 60 percent of the country's 108 million registered voters, an unusually high turnout, cast ballots in a vote United Russia claimed would pave the way for Putin to retain power after his second -- and constitutionally mandated last consecutive -- term ends in May. United Russia got 63.3 percent of the vote, according to the preliminary results released early Monday.

Extraordinary security measures were taken by law enforcement agencies in Moscow and across the country. Some 450,000 police officers and Interior Ministry personnel were on duty, including 20,500 in Moscow alone.

International election monitors did not register any substantial violations at the polls, but opposition parties cried foul and an independent monitoring group collected thousands of complaints about election laws being broken across the country.

Exit polls by the VTsIOM public opinion agency suggested that four parties would clear the 7 percent barrier to make it into the next State Duma: United Russia, with 61 percent; the Communists, at 11.5 percent; the Liberal Democratic Party with 8.8 percent; and A Just Russia, at 8.4 percent. VTsIOM interviewed voters at 1,200 polling stations in 57 regions. The turnout, the agency said, was 59 percent.

Results released by the Central Elections Commission at midnight, after 34 percent of all ballots had been counted, suggested that VTsIOM's numbers were fairly accurate. According to the official count, the Communists were far behind in second place, having collected 11.4 percent of the vote. Another 9.5 percent of voters cast their ballots for the LDPR and 7.5 percent had voted for A Just Russia. No other parties came close to the 7 percent threshold.

Votes cast for parties that failed to make it into the Duma will be distributed proportionally among the winning parties, giving United Russia strong chances of winning a constitutional majority. A constitutional majority is more than two-thirds of the seats in the Duma -- at least 300 of the 450.

United Russia and Putin himself spent the weeks leading up to the elections telling voters that a strong showing by the party would guarantee that the president's policies -- portrayed by the party and the Kremlin as the motor behind Russia's economic growth in the past eight years -- would continue in future.

The message appeared to have worked Sunday, as many voters interviewed outside polling stations said they had voted for Putin, not United Russia. Putin was the only candidate on the party's federal ticket.

"He lifted up our Russia and it began to flourish," Lyudmila Akulich, a pensioner, said at a polling station in the Moscow region town of Shchyolkovo.

Nearby, two women were handing out plastic bags with bars of soap, liquid soap and packets of laundry detergent to voters, saying they were gifts from the local administration for turning out to cast ballots.

As she folded her ballot before throwing it into a mobile ballot box that had been brought to her apartment in northern Moscow, Nadezhda Rupeiko, 79, said she was happy to have lived long enough to vote for a decent Russian leader.

"I voted for Putin, I like him," said a woman who identified herself only as "Galina the pensioner" after she emerged from the ballot station on Ulitsa Goncharova.

At School No. 34, on Ulitsa Plyushchikha, a constant flow of people filed in and out of the voting area as patriotic music blared from loudspeakers.

A man who identified himself only as Bogdan and gave his age as 23, said he had voted for the first time in his life and cast his ballot for United Russia.

"I support our president and this party. And I think that Putin will stay as the leader of our government," he said.

Most polling stations in and around Moscow visited by Moscow Times reporters registered high turnouts Sunday.

"I have worked in elections for over 20 years, but today I am seeing something special -- so many people are coming that I don't even have a chance to close the books where the voters are registered," said Tatyana Fedotova, an election official who was handing out ballots to voters at the polling station at School No. 420, in southern Moscow.

Turnout for the last State Duma elections, in 2003, was 55.7 percent, with United Russia getting 37.6 percent of the vote that time around. Together with deputies elected in single-mandate districts, the party picked up 223 of the 450 seats in the Duma.

Traditionally, North Caucasus and Volga region republics have reported the highest turnouts in federal elections, and this vote was no exception. Chechnya, for example, reported that 99.1 percent of the registered electorate had voted. Governors topped the United Russia party lists in many of their own regions, where they were also responsible for overseeing the makeup and activities of regional and district election commissions.

Alexei Mukhin, an analyst with the Center for Political Information, said the Kremlin pushed for an exceptionally high turnout this time to strengthen the legitimacy of the results.

He said legitimacy had turned into a sensitive question for the Kremlin, as only 300 foreign observers, or one-third the total in 2003, were allowed by the Russian authorities to monitor Sunday's vote.

There were no reports Sunday from the international observers of violations during the vote or the lead-up campaign, other than standard infractions like parties continuing to campaign after the official period ended Friday at midnight and some technicalities at the ballot stations. The observers described these violations to reporters Sunday as minor.

Central Elections Commission officials overseeing the vote said they were also pleased with how smoothly things were run. Commission member Igor Borisov said the body had received just five written complaints and 80 phone calls for the whole country.

Meanwhile, Golos, and independent national election monitoring group funded by U.S. and European grants, collected over 3,500 written and phone-in complains from voters Sunday, posting them on its web site in real time. Most were related to United Russia continuing to display campaign materials after others had taken theirs down.

The success on the part of the LDPR and A Just Russia came as somewhat of a surprise. Eleven parties were in the running for the Duma, but with a minimum of 7 percent needed to qualify, it looked in the weeks leading up to the vote like just United Russia and the Communists would make it.

While the LDPR and A Just Russia both cleared the hurdle, all the rest fell short.

Many voters said they chose to vote for these parties to stop United Russia from totally dominating the parliament.

"It is simply for a counterbalance to the current authorities," said Sergei Korneyenko, a Moscow student who said he voted for Communists.

Two men, who would only identify themselves as musicians, claimed during an interview near a polling station just off Tverskaya Ulitsa that they voted for the Civil Force party, just because its leader, celebrity lawyer Mikhail Barshchevsky, has a good sense of humor.

"We don't believe anybody and found nothing interesting in all parties," one of them said.

After receiving her blank ballot at the polling station at School 420, an elderly woman asked an election official loudly for whom she was supposed to vote.

"Only you can decide," the official replied.

"I don't know for whom to vote," the old woman insisted.

Another official approached her, asking quietly whether she likes what was "going on in Russia under President Putin."

"No!" the old lady shrieked, almost hysterically, and walked out, taking her ballot with her.

Opposition parties complained throughout the campaign and on Sunday that authorities confiscated their campaign materials and denied them equal access to the voters.

Just one minor security incident was reported Sunday, when sniffer dogs were taken to a polling station at a school in northeastern Moscow after a man who appeared to be inebriated told police there that a bomb had been planted inside. The report turned out to be a false alarm.

Police officials said two or three officers had been dispatched to watch over every polling station to guarantee security. At School No. 420, in southern Moscow, two police officers monitoring a metal detector at the door seemed to pay little attention as the device emitted regular buzzing sounds while people passed through.

 

 

(The Moscow Times 3.xii.07)

 
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