Russians voted on Sunday in a parliamentary election expected to hand President Vladimir Putin’s party a crushing majority and boost his bid to retain authority after leaving the Kremlin.
Polling stations opened in a wave across the world’s biggest country, starting on the Pacific coast and reaching the capital Moscow at 5am GMT, following an election campaign overshadowed by accusations of rigging in favour of Putin’s United Russia party.
Eleven parties were participating but opinion polls predicted United Russia would win at least two thirds of seats in the 450-seat State Duma, with many others going to Kremlin-friendly parties, and pro-Western liberals winning no seats at all.
Putin, who is required by the Constitution to step down at the end of two terms next year, heads United Russia’s candidate list. He said that victory on Sunday would give him a “moral mandate” to influence the government after he leaves, fuelling speculation that the ex-KGB officer intends to retain power.
United Russia have cast the elections as a referendum on Putin’s rule, saying that a vote for the party would safeguard the country’s oil-driven economic boom and stability.
Putin, accused by his few remaining open critics of sliding toward dictatorship, is widely popular with Russians who have benefited from huge revenues for Russian energy exports at a time of sky-high oil and gas prices.
“I’ll vote for United Russia. They’ve done a good job, everything is getting better,” said Vladimir Babikov, a 19-year-old conscript sailor shifting to keep warm in the biting breeze as he queued to vote near Vladivostok harbour.
Polls also show that many Russians would support Putin staying on in power, although analysts say this popularity is partly the result of the Kremlin’s control of television.
“I’m not worried Putin has to step down,” said Alexander Boiko, a 52-year-old plumber, after voting for United Russia in a Vladivostok polling station overlooking the Sea of Japan. “He’s part of United Russia and they’ll still be there so what’s the difference.”
Opposition forces, ranging from liberals to the Communists, accuse the Kremlin of suppressing debate during the campaign by dominating television coverage on state media, confiscating their election leaflets and arresting activists.
Former chess champion turned Kremlin critic Garry Kasparov, who spent five days behind bars last week for taking part in an unauthorised protest against Putin, dismissed the elections as a “farce.”
Alexei Gutkin, a voter in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky over 6 000km and nine time zones east of Moscow, described United Russia as “a return to the Communist Party”.
Election watchdog organisations have voiced concern over allegations that voters have come under pressure from authorities to turn out and vote for United Russia.
Early turnout figures were up slightly from 2003 parliamentary polls in several regions in the far East, the Interfax news agency reported.
With the result of Sunday’s legislative polls seen as a foregone conclusion, speculation is focused on Putin’s future.
Although he is banned from seeking a third consecutive term many analysts believe that he and his allies are looking for ways to extend that rule. Putin has repeatedly said he will stand down on time, but at the same time insisting that he will retain “influence”.
Analysts believe that even if Putin does step down he will be able to all but name his successor in March 2 presidential elections.
Putin and his Kremlin allies are hoping that a strong victory coupled with a high turnout in Sunday’s polls will give them a free hand to lay the groundwork for the presidential vote.
“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.
The first votes were cast on Russia’s Pacific coast at 8pm GMT Saturday, with early results expected 22 hours later after the final polling stations close in the Baltic Sea exclave of Kaliningrad at 6pm GMT on Sunday.
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. — AFP