Russian vote seen as referendum on Putin
By JIM HEINTZ, Associated Press Writer 2 hours, 40
MOSCOW - Russians voted Sunday in a parliamentary
election where the only question was whether President
Vladimir Putin's party would win a strong majority of
seats or a crushing share.
The election follows months of increasingly acidic
rhetoric aimed against the West and efforts, by law
and by truncheon, to stifle opponents.
A huge win for Putin's United Russia party could pave
the way for him to stay at the country's helm once his
presidential term expires in the spring. The party
casts the election as essentially a referendum on
Putin's nearly eight years in office. Many of its
campaign banners that festoon the capital read "Moscow
is voting for Putin."
"He's a good man. Any woman would love to see him in
her house," said Polina Amanyeva, 58, at a Moscow
polling station where she said she voted for United
Putin is constitutionally prohibited from running for
a third consecutive term as president in March. But he
clearly wants to keep his hand on Russia's levers of
power, and has raised the prospect of becoming prime
minister; many supporters have suggested his becoming
a "national leader," though what duties and powers
that would entail are unclear.
He has said that a strong showing for the party Sunday
would give him the moral right to ensure that
politicians in power continue his policies. Recent
opinion polls suggest the party could win up to 80
percent of seats.
"I'm sure that voters have determined their
preferences and now only have to come and vote for the
party whose platform seems convincing, vote for those
people in whom you trust," Putin told reporters after
casting his ballot at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
The dominance of United Russia provoked a fatalistic
attitude in some voters.
"I think the result was pretty much planned in
advance. I don't know who I'll vote for; I'll decide
when I get to the booth," said Ivan Kudrashov as he
entered Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral for
Alexander Mikhailov, 39, said outside a polling
station in Moscow that he wanted to vote for a "truly
democratic party" and chose the liberal opposition
Yabloko because "there is no other choice."
In Moscow, about 15 gay-rights activists were detained
at a polling station after a protest in which they
scrawled "No to homophobia" on their ballots.
The voting started in the Far Eastern regions of
Chukotka and Kamchatka while Muscovites were preparing
for bed late Saturday. It concludes in the western
exclave of Kaliningrad at 1 p.m. EST Sunday.
The vote is the first national ballot under new
election laws that have been widely criticized as
marginalizing opposition forces. All the seats will be
awarded proportionately to how much of the vote a
party receives; in previous elections, half the seats
were distributed among candidates contesting a
specific district, which allowed a few mavericks to
The new laws also say a party must receive at least 7
percent of the national vote to get any seats up
from the previous 5 percent. A poll by the All-Russia
Public Opinion Research Center in mid-November showed
the Communists and two other parties hovering near the
Opposition parties, meanwhile, claim authorities have
confiscated campaign materials and that the managers
of halls have refused to rent them out for opposition
meetings. Police have violently broken up opposition
rallies most recently in Moscow and St. Petersburg
last weekend and national television gives the
parties hardly any coverage.
In contrast, Putin's speeches to supporters have been
broadcast in full and repeated throughout evening
"The fact is, they're not just rigging the vote.
They're raping the democratic system," said chess
champion and opposition leader Garry Kasparov on
Kasparov, who was jailed for five days after the
Moscow protest, spoiled his ballot by writing on it
"Other Russia," the name of his opposition umbrella
Sunday's vote "meets none of the criteria of a free,
fair and democratic election. In effect, it is not
even an election," Andrei Illarionov, a former adviser
to Putin, wrote in a commentary for the Cato Institute
Under Putin, Russia has become inundated with oil
revenue, a nascent middle class is developing and the
war against separatists in Chechnya has faded into
sporadic, small clashes. Russia's newly assertive
military policy and inclination to taunt and criticize
the West appeals strongly to Russians who suffered
physically and emotionally in the early post-Soviet
Disdain for the West has been one of the dominating
themes of the election. Putin has called his opponents
"foreign-fed jackals" and warned that Russia will not
tolerate meddling from abroad.
All those factors contribute to strong support for
United Russia. But with the competition stifled and
the election result seen as a foregone conclusion,
some of the 107 million eligible to vote could find
apathy, inertia or simply the winter weather keeping
them away from the ballot box.
"It's clear that the current election will only
stabilize the interests for one man, who has already
run the country for a long time," said Musa Isayev, a
40-year-old resident of Grozny, the capital of
There's no minimum turnout needed for the election to
be valid another change from previous elections
but a low number of voters could undermine Putin's
claim that Russia is developing into a true democracy,
albeit one with only passing resemblance to Western
Authorities throughout Russia's 11 time zones appear
determined to ensure a sizable turnout, through
pressure, persuasion and even presents. One region is
offering young voters passes to pools and sports
facilities; another says new housing will be built in
whichever village shows the most "mature" turnout.
Teachers, doctors and other workers have complained
that their bosses are ordering them to vote usually
with the implication that they should vote for United
With Russia showing an increasingly assertive military
policy and with foreign hunger growing for Russia's
oil, gas and minerals, the election is of strong
interest overseas. But international organizations are
not able to watch as closely as they had hoped.
The elections-monitoring arm of the Organization for
Security and Cooperation in Europe, regarded in the
West as the most authoritative assessor of whether an
election is fair, canceled plans to send observers. It
said Russia had delayed granting visas for so long
that the organization would be unable to conduct a
meaningful assessment of election preparations.
Russia has criticized monitoring by the OSCE elsewhere
in the former Soviet Union as supporting protests that
forced leadership changes, but it denied that it was
impeding operations in Russia. Putin claimed the
pullout was initiated by the United States in an
effort to discredit the elections and his government.
A total of about 300 observers from various
international organizations were scheduled to monitor
the voting, including some from the Shanghai
Cooperation Organization of Russia, China and
ex-Soviet Central Asian republics.
Correspondent Mansur Mirovalev in Moscow contributed
to this report.