Russia prepares to vote with all eyes on Putin

Final preparations were under way in Russia on Saturday for parliamentary elections expected to hand a sweeping victory to President Vladimir Putin’s party, just three months before presidential polls.

From Kamchatka to Kaliningrad, 109-million voters are eligible to cast ballots on Sunday in Russia’s fifth parliamentary elections since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

Putin is standing as the lead candidate of the United Russia party and has said that a convincing victory would give him a mandate to continue playing a role in politics after he steps down in March of next year.

A former KGB officer in power since 2000, Putin has cast the elections as a referendum on his rule, saying that a vote for United Russia would safeguard the country’s oil-driven economic boom and stability.

”The result of the parliamentary elections will, without a doubt, set the tone for the elections for a new president,” Putin said in a televised address on Thursday that was aired again on Friday.

In his final pitch to voters, Putin urged them to turn out at the polls and vote for United Russia, warning that a vote for his opponents could return the country to the ”humiliation, dependency and disintegration” of the early post-Soviet years.

A campaign blackout went into effect at midnight on Friday as required by law, although giant United Russia posters remain prominently displayed in Moscow while those of the 10 other parties are hard to spot.

The opposition has accused the Kremlin of suppressing debate during the campaign by dominating television coverage on state media, confiscating their election leaflets and arresting members.

Former chess champion turned Kremlin critic Garry Kasparov has dismissed the elections as a ”farce” and warned that Putin was leading the country toward dictatorship.

After spending five days behind bars this week for taking part in an unauthorised protest against Putin, Kasparov accused the 55-year-old president of resorting to repression to cement his party’s dominance.

”Fear is the only chance this regime has to survive,” he said.

Putin and his Kremlin allies are hoping that a strong victory, coupled with a high turnout at the polls, will give them a free hand to lay the groundwork for the presidential vote, analysts say.

The campaign for the presidency kicked off on Wednesday with no frontrunner in sight and the clock is ticking for Putin to tip his hand before a December 23 deadline for parties to nominate their candidates for the top post.

In the final days of campaigning, Putin appeared to confirm that he would not stand in the March vote, but whether he plans to return at a later stage or anoint a successor remains unclear.

Polls show United Russia will win at least 62% of the vote, with the Communist Party trailing far behind with 12%.

Already the pro-Putin youth movement Nashi (Ours) has released a statement announcing that ”on December 2, the Russian people chose President Putin as their national leader” and congratulating United Russia on its ”overwhelming victory.”

Nashi spokesperson Ana Gurinovich said that the statement on United Russia’s election victory was released because ”we are convinced that they will win”.

Russian authorities and businesses, meanwhile, mounted a massive effort to maximise the turnout, including through SMS messages from Russia’s biggest operators encouraging cellphone subscribers to vote.

Election watchdog organisations have voiced concern over allegations that voters have come under pressure from authorities to turn out and vote, with many told to cast ballots at their workplaces, under the watchful eye of their bosses.

About 450 000 police officers will be on duty across the country on Sunday to ensure order as voters flock to the 95 000 polling stations set up across Russia’s 11 time zones. — AFP



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Carole Landry
Carole Landry
Carole Landry covers the United Nations for @AFP. Postings in Moscow, Washington, Johannesburg and Paris.

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