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Electoral Overhaul Nearly Finished

The State Duma on Friday tentatively approved a raft of bills that would prohibit parties from creating electoral blocs, make it easier to ban a party or a candidate from running, and restrict media coverage of elections and referendums.

The Kremlin-sponsored legislation is the final significant effort in President Vladimir Putin's reform of the electoral system, which he has said is needed to fight terrorism and develop democracy.

Political analysts, however, said the bills -- 13 amendments to existing laws -- would hinder opposition parties and deal a blow to democracy.

The legislation, which was approved in a first reading Friday, would ban a party from creating blocs with other parties -- something that small parties have done in the past to pass the mandatory threshold required to win Duma seats.

United Russia, which is controlled by the Kremlin and dominates the State Duma, has faced strong competition from blocs of liberal and leftist parties in regional elections.

Also, in 2003 Duma elections, nationalists won a surprise victory after teaming up to form the Rodina bloc.

In another significant change, a bill was approved that would reduce from 25 percent to 5 percent the number of invalided voters' signatures necessary to disqualify a party or a candidate from a race.

Duma Deputy Speaker Vladimir Pekhtin, of United Russia, defended the amendment during a debate Friday, saying, "How can we talk about fair and honest elections if a quarter of the signatures that voters give to parties are invalid?"

But Communist Deputy Valentin Kuptsov said the proposal would lead to "an even greater arbitrariness" toward candidates and parties that are disliked by the authorities.

Nikolai Petrov, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, called the amendment "terrible." He said the authorities could prevent candidates or parties from running because they control the police and some elections commissions -- the agencies that verify the signatures.

The amendment provides an alternative that allows candidates and parties to put up a cash deposit instead of collecting signatures.

That option, however, could prompt pro-government rivals with signatures to claim that they have more popular support, Petrov said.

Another amendment approved Friday would raise from Jan. 1 the amount of state funding for parties that have factions in the Duma. The funding would soar from 50 kopeks to 5 rubles for every vote they garnered, Central Elections Commission chief Alexander Veshnyakov told the Duma in presenting the legislation.

The change appears to be in line with a law that Putin signed Thursday and which ends the election of independent Duma deputies. "The idea is to raise the fence and allow only the parties that support the authorities [into the Duma]. And once they are there, they will get a larger piece of the pie," Petrov said.

Among the other amendments approved Friday:

• Media organizations would be liable for reprinting or rebroadcasting false or erroneous reports during election campaigns.

The amendment will apply to Article 57 of the law on mass media, which prohibits the prosecution of media organizations and their employees for reprinting articles word for word, even if the information in the articles is erroneous or slanderous.

Andrei Richter, director of the Media Law and Policy Institute, has said the amendment would "infringe on media rights" and warned that regional media might lack resources and staff to double-check all news reports for accuracy.

• A Duma deputy would lose his seat if he switches parties after election. Veshnyakov said, however, that the deputy would not be dismissed if he is expelled by his faction because, for example, he "did not vote the right way."

Pekhtin said the amendment would make parliament more stable and end any behind-the-scenes theatrics by deputies.

• A single date would be set for all regional and municipal elections -- the second Sunday of March. The first Sunday of October would serve as a backup date, apparently for elections that unexpectedly need to be scheduled after a death or resignation.

Veshnyakov said the amendment would not change the timing of the next Duma elections and that they would be held on the first Sunday in December 2007.

Veshnyakov also said that minor amendments were being drafted for the law on presidential elections.

The latest steps toward reforming the electoral system could further stifle dissenting voices and prompt opposition groups to mount street protests -- thus defying Putin's stated goal of greater stability and democracy, Petrov said.

"The Kremlin is pushing itself toward an Orange Revolution," Petrov said, referring to the peaceful uprising in Ukraine late last year that brought pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko to power. "If the interests of certain groups aren't represented in parliament, the groups will take to the streets."

(The Moscow Times 23.v.05)

 
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