President Vladimir Putin appeared to be heading for a landslide victory in Russia’s parliamentary elections on Sunday night amid widespread reports that millions of citizens were coerced into voting for his party, United Russia.
Early results from the Central Election Commission indicated the party was leading with 63% of votes, with the Communist party trailing a distant second on 11,5%.
Two other partners looked set to scrape into the State Duma: the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, with 10,6%, and Fair Russia, another Kremlin-linked party, with 7,1%. Exit polls indicated similar figures.
Turnout was expected to be high at over 60%, compared with 56% in the last Duma election in 2003.
Observers said the poll and run-up campaign were the least fair in the entire post-Soviet period. Thousands of public sector workers have complained they were threatened with losing jobs or bonuses if they did not cast their ballot for the pro-Kremlin United Russia.
While it has a genuinely large public following based on Putin’s high personal ratings, monitors said the result had been inflated by up to 20% through a campaign of intimidation and negative PR.
Liliya Shibanova, director of Golos, a monitoring organisation with 2 000 observers across the country, said: ”We have seen an unprecedented attempt to manipulate the vote. There has been mass forced voting and a raft of other violations.”
Kremlin aides were known to be desperate to orchestrate a crushing win for United Russia as an endorsement for Putin to stay on as de facto leader of the country despite having to give up the presidency next spring. The president headed the party’s list in yesterday’s vote to elect 450 members of the lower house.
The run-up to polling day was marred by claims of widespread dirty tricks.
Shibanova said many state workers and students were obliged to take absentee ballots and vote at their place of work or study. Bosses and teaching staff then hinted or told voters that they would lose jobs, fail exams or be kicked out of dormitories if they did not vote for United Russia. In some regions up to 54 times more absentee ballots were issued than during the last Duma elections in 2003, she said.
Opposition groups reported that police had arrested dozens of their activists. Those detained included leading members of The Other Russia, the anti-Kremlin coalition headed by the former chess champion Garry Kasparov.
Dmitry Krayukhin, a human rights activist and independent election monitor from the town of Oryol, said police arrested him on Saturday. ”I was walking down the street when a young man pushed into me and started yelling,” he said. ”I immediately realised it was a provocation. Suddenly two or three militia guys came out from a car and surrounded me. I was then taken down the station and charged with stealing a mobile phone.”
The police released him only when Amnesty International and other human rights group intervened, Krayukhin said. But the local head of The Other Russia, Georgy Sarkisyan, was still in prison and unable to vote after police had arrested him for hooliganism, he added.
Opposition leaders also questioned the size of the turnout and said the huge voting figures were the result of administrative fraud. Vladimir Ryzhkov, an independent MP, said the number of absentee ballots from his Siberian constituency had shot up from 1 500 in 2003 to 20 000.
Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist party leader, said the election had been ”the most irresponsible and dirty” since the Soviet breakup in 1991.
One independent exit poll in the far eastern port of Vladivostok suggested that United Russia had done worse than expected, polling only 40%.
The Communist party also complained that election officials were touring flats and houses with a mobile ballot box to boost the United Russia vote. ”They didn’t make any effort to tick people off the list or stop them voting twice,” said Artyom Skatov, a party spokesperson in Novosibirsk.
On Sunday night Grigory Golosov, a professor in the faculty of political sciences and sociology at St Petersburg’s European University, described the vote as ”fair but not free”. – Guardian Unlimited Ã‚