Chechen poll dismissed as 'worse than a farce'

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Akhmad Kadyrov, the Chechen presidential candidate backed by Moscow, won 80 per cent of the votes cast in 12 of the republic's 20 regions, Russian news reports said last night. A candidate needs more than 50 per cent to win the election outright and avoid a runoff.

The Kremlin hailed the election as a step towards normality in the war-torn southern republic but it was denounced by critics as a travesty.

Quoting unnamed officials in Chechnya's election commission, ITAR-Tass news agency also reported that preliminary results from four administrative districts representing about one-third of the total votes cast, including the capital Grozny, indicated that Mr Kadyrov won roughly 80 per cent of the votes in those districts.

Mr Kadyrov, who was appointed by the Kremlin in 2000 and became the region's acting president in March, was widely expected to win after his leading challengers withdrew or were cast out of the race.

Russian news reports said 16,000 armed police were guarding the republic's 426 polling stations, and security precautions were in effect throughout Chechnya. Three shooting incidents were reported aroundGrozny, butofficials saidvoting proceeded in a "calm and peaceful atmosphere". A wave of suicide bombings during the summer, blamed on Chechen rebels, killed almost 200 people in Chechnya, neighbouring republics and in Moscow.

Officials said almost half of Chechnya's 560,000 eligible voters had cast ballots by yesterday evening, well over the 30 per cent required for the voting to be legal. Those voting included some 30,000 Russian troops stationed in the republic, as well as thousands of refugees bussed into Chechnya from tent camps in the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia.

Although seven candidates are running for the presidency, analysts say Mr Kadyrov's six surviving rivals are nonentities. Four serious contenders ­ all of whom were performing better than Mr Kadyrov in independent opinion polls ­ have quit since July. "These elections are worse than a farce, they are a theatre of the absurd," says Lyudmilla Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, a Russian human rights watchdog, which last month cancelled plans to send 300 election monitors. Most international organisations, including the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, declined to send observers to Chechnya.

Mr Kadyrov is a Muslim mufti and former rebel who called for an Islamic jihad against Russia during Chechnya's first war for independence in 1994-96. But after the Kremlin again sent troops into the republic in 1999, Mr Kadyrov was appointed to lead a pro-Moscow provisional government in 2000.

Critics say Mr Kadyrov has stacked local administrations with his cronies and employed his personal security force ­ led by his son, Ramzan ­ to intimidate rivals and seize control of all the republic's media outlets.

Mr Kadyrov has survived numerous assassination attempts, most recently when a female suicide bomber killed herself and 14 others, but narrowly missed the acting president, at a festival in May.

The presidential election is the outcome of a one-sided peace process launched a year ago by the Kremlin. Moscow's main objective is to remove legitimacy from Chechnya's rebel leader, Aslan Maskhadov, who was elected in the republic's only internationally recognised presidential polls in 1997. Neither Mr Maskhadov nor any of his representatives were permitted to take part in the latest election, which the rebels called a "meaningless sham".

Little is expected to change if Mr Kadyrov wins, but he is likely to receive an increasingly free hand from a war-weary Russian President Vladimir Putin, who faces his own presidential election in March.