Liberal parties face crucial test against Putin in Moscow elections

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The Independent Online

Russia's enfeebled pro-Western democrats subjected themselves to a make-or-break test yesterday, taking on the might of President Vladimir Putin's party in local Moscow elections.

The elections, which will see 35 candidates chosen to fill the capital's city Duma (parliament), are seen as a dress rehearsal for national parliamentary elections in 2007 and, indeed, presidential elections in 2008.

Yabloko, Russia's oldest democratic party, joined forces with another opposition party called the Union of Right Forces or SPS in an attempt to make an impact and try to put the liberal opposition on the political map.

Ranged against them, however, is the mighty United Russia, Mr Putin's party that controls the national parliament. United Russia is expected to win a majority easily and, ahead of the vote, the capital was festooned with their banners.

Moscow is regarded as Russia's most liberal city - and if the liberal pro-Westerners cannot win a good number of votes here, the argument goes, they will face annihilation in a nationwide vote. The problem they face is if they don't break through the 10 per cent barrier they won't win any seats at all.

Equally, the vote is considered to be a test for the nationalists and the Communists. However, one wing of the nationalist movement, the Rodina party, was expelled from the ballot for airing an allegedly racist advert.

The liberal opposition questioned the fairness of the elections. Yabloko's deputy chairman, Sergei Mitrokhin, alleged vote-rigging was under way, with groups of people being bussed between polling stations to cast multiple votes. Official observers say they have found no serious offences.

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