Putin's party dominates in parliamentary voting

With big turnout, election seen as referendum on the president

December 03, 2007|By Megan K. Stack | Megan K. Stack,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MOSCOW -- Heeding their popular president's ominous warnings that Russia's future dangled in the balance, voters flocked to the polls yesterday to cast ballots in an unorthodox parliamentary election.

Bombarded with the message that they should treat the election as a referendum on President Vladimir V. Putin's rule, voters turned out in large numbers, with lines forming at some polling stations as people waited for their chance at the ballot box. As expected, Putin's United Russia swept up more than 60 percent of the vote, according to early estimates.

The surge of electoral participation, with turnout reportedly topping 60 percent, reflected Putin's aggressive campaign to turn out the vote.

"The president is trying to establish some kind of order in this country," said Yulia Mikhailova, 47, a disabled Muscovite who limped to the polls with the help of her cane. "He's a person who has turned Russia into a country to be reckoned with."

Furious opposition leaders called yesterday's election the least democratic vote since the collapse of the Soviet Union and vowed to challenge the results in court.

"This will beat all records in modern Russian history for irregularities," former chess champion and prominent opposition leader Gary Kasparov said. "Putin has been destroying democracy, poisoning it for the last eight years."

Falling at a moment of swelling national uncertainty over the country's political future, the importance of yesterday's vote mushroomed far beyond seating lawmakers in an assuredly pro-Kremlin legislature. Putin's second term ends next year, and under the constitution, he cannot seek a third consecutive term.

Yet by turning the elections into a one-man popularity contest, the president is laying the groundwork for a popular mandate that will help him keep a grip on power, analysts say. Putin could use triumph at the polls to go on to serve as prime minister or party chief, or could encourage his party to amend the constitution so that he can stay on as president. However, Putin has repeatedly denied any plans to remain president after his term expires.

Votes were still being tallied late yesterday when United Russia party leader Boris Gryzlov told Russian television that his party now has the right to "ensure the succession of state policy for the next four years."

"De facto, they came to the referendum to show support for the course of our president," he said.

Eleven parties were listed on the paper ballot presented to voters yesterday. Most listed the names of three top officers - all except United Russia, which listed only a single name: Putin's.

As they pulled their fur caps over their ears and headed back out into the snow, many voters seemed oblivious to the fact that they were voting for parliament. For better or worse, it was Putin who lingered in their thoughts.

"We want Putin to win very, very much," said 75-year-old Maria Ravinskaya. "We hope Putin will take us to a higher level of life."

Polls estimate the president's approval rating above 80 percent, but a sprinkling of skeptics milled among the Putin enthusiasts yesterday.

In the town of Krasnogorsk, bespectacled army officer Andrei Shamanayev said he would never vote for Putin or his party. Pro-government propaganda is deadening healthy political debate, he said.

"I don't understand all this fuss about him," said Shamanayev, 28. "What has he done?"

"Not everything is as good as they tell us on TV," he said.

Megan K. Stack writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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