Putin Keeps Control
President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party dominated as expected in parliamentary elections Sunday, Dec. 2, which were marred by allegations of manipulation at the polls.
With ballots counted Monday morning from nearly 98 percent of the precincts, United Russia, the incumbent party, had claimed 64.1 percent of the vote.
Following United Russia was the Communist party with just under 12 percent. The ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party and pro-Kremlin party A Just Russia barely passed the new 7-percent threshold needed to enter the lower house of parliament, the Duma. Seven other parties failed to reach the 7-percent minimum, which was raised from 5 percent prior to the elections.
Shortly after the vote, the United States government called for a probe to investigate claims of vote-rigging, while Nikolai Konkin, deputy chairman of the elections committee, promised that "all complaints and allegations will be carefully examined."
The head of Russia's election commission, however, said on Monday that there were no major violations at the country's parliamentary polls, Interfax reported.
Opposition criticizes abuse
But accusations were rife among all 11 parties participating in the vote. They claim that Putin's party enjoyed an unfair advantage under new election laws and blanket media coverage resulting from Putin's abuse of the presidents' office for campaign purposes.
Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who plans to run in the next presidential election in March 2008, called the elections "dishonest and unfair." The liberal Union of Right Forces said they would respond to the election result with a campaign of "civil disobedience."
In addition, the opposition Communist Party said it would challenge the results at the Supreme Court. Communist legal chief Vadim Solovyev told Ria Novosti news agency that there were "violations exceeding all acceptable norms." The party said it would meet on Monday to discuss whether to boycott the new parliament.
Former chess grandmaster and Kremlin critic Garry Kasparov spoke out vehemently against the election as he visited a polling station.
"The fact is they're not just rigging the vote," he said. "They're raping the democratic system."
In the days and weeks ahead of the Dec. 2 vote, the Kremlin clamped down on opposition organizations, breaking up rallies and raiding party headquarters. Kasparov recently spent five days behind bars for participating in an unauthorized protest.
The opposition, ranging from liberals to the Communists, charges the Kremlin with suppressing debate, dominating state television, confiscating election leaflets and arresting activists.
Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov said the election had been the "least democratic" ever held in post-Soviet Russia and there had been "numerous violations," ITAR-TASS news agency reported.
Observers suspect vote-rigging
"We have seen a campaign of unprecedented pressure on the voters," said Alexander Kynev at Golos, an independent voter watchdog body which receives EU and US government funds.
International observers from the OSCE and the Council of Europe said Monday that the election was unfair.
"The State Duma election in the Russian Federation on the 2nd December 2007 was not fair and failed to meet many OSCE and Council of Europe commitments and standards for democratic elections," the joint observer mission said in a statement.
Allegations were made that voters were bribed with televisions and refrigerators to vote for the incumbent party and a report came from St. Petersburg that groups of people were bussed from one polling station to another to cast multiple votes.
"These are not isolated incidents," said Grigory Melkonyans, also of Golos. "The complaints are from every corner of Russia."
Turnout was high among the country's 109 million registered voters, with more than 60 percent casting their ballots. The Dec. 2 vote was the fifth parliamentary election since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. It is the first since introducing new rules raising the representational threshold for entering the Duma from five to seven percent.
Test-run for March presidential election?
The leader of President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party said a strong showing in Sunday's parliamentary election was a personal victory for Putin. The president has enjoyed widespread popularity due to huge revenues from energy exports, steadily rising living standards and a restored sense of national pride following the post-Soviet trauma.
"This election was a referendum on President Putin so I think we can say he has won a victory," United Russia chief Boris Gryzlov told reporters. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov added that Russian voters had spoken in favor of President Putin’s course "being continued after the current president’s term ends."
Putin, 55, said before the election that a big victory would give him a "moral" mandate to retain a major role when he steps down next year after two consecutive Kremlin terms, the maximum allowed by the constitution.
Speculation is focusing on whether the ex-KGB agent will seek to keep power through a new post or behind the scenes while a loyalist takes over the presidency in elections next March. Some suspect he may circumvent the constitutional two-term limit by handing over power temporarily to a trusted ally before returning to the presidency.
Gryzlov told reporters on Sunday that United Russia would nominate its candidate for the March presidential elections at its congress later this month, but declined to say who it would be.
The success of the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party in meeting the seven-percent minimum for parliamentary representation has made it possible for Andrei Lugovei to become a deputy. Lugovei, who is wanted by the British government in connection with the radiation poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko, would receive legal immunity as a member of parliament.
Relations with West turn tense
On the eve of the elections, there was also concern in the West, where relations with Russia have become increasingly tense under Putin, who controls the world's largest energy reserves.
Last week, the Russian president had accused the West of "poking their snotty noses" in his country’s affairs.
The main European election watchdog, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, called off its observer mission in Russia, complaining of a lack of cooperation from Moscow. As a result, fewer than 80 Western observers monitored the election spread across 11 time zones.
In a radio interview on Sunday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized the lack of foreign observers permitted to monitor the elections.
"We surely have a responsibility to again argue at length" to call for Russia's approval for free parties and for the respect of human rights, Merkel added. She said she hoped Russia would move towards allowing more different opinions.