Saturday, December 1, 2007

Russia prepares to vote with all eyes on Putin

MOSCOW (AFP) — Russians on Saturday prepared to vote in parliamentary elections expected to hand a sweeping victory to President Vladimir Putin's party and consolidate the Kremlin's power three months before presidential polls.

The opposition has denounced the elections as a "farce" and warned that Putin was leading the country to Soviet-style one-party rule during a campaign that has been overwhelmingly dominated by his United Russia party.

Voting kicks off at 2000 GMT Saturday in the Russian Far East region of Kamchatka, some 6,000 kilometres (3,700 miles) east of Moscow and polls are set to open nine hours later in the Russian capital.

Putin is standing as United Russia's lead candidate in the elections and has said that a convincing victory would give him a mandate to continue playing a role in politics after he steps down in March of next year.

The ex-KGB officer in power since 2000 has cast the elections as a referendum on his rule, saying that a vote for United Russia would safeguard the country's oil-driven economic boom and stability.

"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 that was aired again on Friday.

Russian authorities and businesses meanwhile mounted a massive effort to maximise the turnout, including through SMS messages from Russia's biggest operators encouraging mobile phone subscribers to vote.

Putin and his Kremlin allies are hoping that a strong victory coupled with a high turnout at the polls will give them a free hand to lay the groundwork for the presidential vote set for March 2.

In his final pitch to voters, Putin urged them to turn out at the polls, warning that a vote for his opponents could return the country to the "humiliation, dependency and disintegration" of the early post-Soviet years.

The campaign has also seen Putin ramp up his anti-Western rhetoric, likening his opponents to Western-funded "jackals" and warning that while Russia was committed to democratic development, it would not allow "this process to be corrected from the outside."

A campaign blackout went into effect as required by law, but television news showed footage of Putin, a judo black-belt, attending a martial arts competition in Moscow late Friday, nodding approvingly as he watched sumo wrestlers and kickboxers square off in the rings.

Giant United Russia posters remained prominently displayed in Moscow while those of the 10 other parties fielding candidates to the 450-seat State Duma were hard to spot.

The opposition has accused the Kremlin of suppressing debate during the campaign by dominating television coverage on state media, confiscating their election leaflets and arresting members.

Former chess champion turned Kremlin critic Garry Kasparov has dismissed the elections as a "farce" and warned that Putin was leading the country toward dictatorship.

After spending five days behind bars this week for taking part in an unauthorised protest against Putin, Kasparov accused the 55-year-old president of resorting to repression to cement his party's dominance.

"Fear is the only chance this regime has to survive," he said.

Election watchdog groups have voiced concern over allegations that voters have come under pressure from authorities to turn out and vote, with many told to cast ballots at their workplaces, under the watchful eye of their bosses.

But Saint-Petersburg governor Valentina Matviyenko, a Putin ally whose name has been floated as a possible successor, defended the elections as democratic and said: "I have no worries about tomorrow's victory", Interfax reported.

In the final days of campaigning, Putin appeared to confirm that he would not stand in the March vote, but whether he plans to anoint a successor, perhaps temporarily while he prepares a return to the presidency, remains unclear.

The campaign for the presidency kicked off on Wednesday with no frontrunner in sight and the clock is ticking for Putin to tip his hand before a December 23 deadline for parties to nominate their candidates for the top post.

Putin is barred by the constitution from seeking a third term.

The United States on Friday said it would be closely watching as some 109 million registered voters cast ballots in the Russia's fifth election since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

"We are concerned that people would not be able to have the free and fair elections that they deserve," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.

Some 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 set up across Russia's 11 time zones.

The last polling stations are due to close at 1800 GMT in Kaliningrad, a Russian region sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania.

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