'One-party poll' fuels voter apathy in Russia

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The Independent Online

Sitting in a swanky cafe in downtown Vladivostok, Katya stirs her cappuccino thoughtfully. "Well, in the presidential elections I'd vote for Putin, or whoever he suggests to replace him," she says. "But I'm not going to vote in the parliamentary elections. What's the point?"

Katya is 25 and has a relatively good job, working in an investment bank in the Pacific port city. She speaks fluent English and has her own car and apartment. And like many thousands of young Russians who have done well financially in the past few years, she doesn't have any time for politics, save for a vague support for President Vladimir Putin.

"I don't talk about politics with my friends or colleagues," she says with a laugh, as if the mere idea is ridiculous. "Maybe if it affects business, but just to be having lunch and start talking about politics – no."

Less than two weeks before the elections on 2 December, the Kremlin has a problem, partially of its own making: nobody really cares about the outcome. Interest in party politics is at an all-time low, say analysts, partly due to a concerted set of moves on the part of the Kremlin to stifle real political debate and partly due to the belief that voting will change nothing.

In Vladivostok, like in Moscow, seven time zones to the west, and in every city in between, the streets are decked with posters for the pro-Putin United Russia party, which is expected to win about 60 per cent of the vote. The party has little real ideology except for a steadfast support for Mr Putin and has a near monopoly on television coverage. Its campaign posters are simple: a Russian flag and the slogan, "Putin's plan is Russia's victory".

Last month, Mr Putin agreed to head the party's list at the elections, and it is only by linking themselves to the President – the only politician with true mass appeal in Russia – that they are able to inspire support. Mr Putin himself made a carefully coordinated attack on the party last week, saying it was full of "all kinds of crooks" but was the best option available.

Fair Russia, a party created last year with Kremlin backing and meant to act as a controllable opposition to United Russia, has been doing dismally at the polls and may not make it into the Duma, the Russian parliament.

Widespread indifference to the parties can be partly explained by the cynical nature of Russian politics. "Nobody standing for the Duma elections is actually doing so based on real ideas, except the Communists," said a Vladivostok-based analyst, who asked not to be named. "Everyone else uses a party platform to advance their own personal or business interests. And of course the trouble with the Communists is that their ideas aren't very attractive any more."

Since the previous elections, a whole range of regulations have prevented smaller parties from getting in. It has become tougher to register political parties, the threshold for Duma entry has been raised from 5 to 7 per cent of the vote, and the "against all" option has been removed, meaning that the only way to register a protest vote is to spoil the ballot or stay away. The 7 per cent barrier is likely to shut out the Russian liberal parties.

In Vladivostok, one man who has been part of the past two Duma sittings is Viktor Cherepkov, a former mayor who claims to have links with cosmic forces. "He's completely insane," says Alexander Helbach, a retired local journalist. "But people remember that when he was mayor in the 1990s, he got things done. And unlike everyone else here, he's not corrupt."

But whereas before, a certain number of seats were allocated through direct single-constituency voting, this duma will be entirely elected from party lists. This will mean no space for people such as Mr Cherepkov or the Kremlin critic Vladimir Ryzhkov.

According to internet sources and blogs, workers in state institutions such as schools and hospitals are being pressured to vote for United Russia, and in some cases are even being told they must photograph their ballot papers to prove it.

"Apathy can work both ways," says Boris Dubin, an analyst with the Levada Centre polling agency in Moscow, explaining why a turnout of 60 per cent is still expected. "People are worried what might happen if they don't vote. So, given that they don't care much anyway, they think it's better to go and vote for United Russia and avoid any potential problems."

Amid the apathy, a few have taken the path of protest. The most radical of these have joined the Other Russia coalition, led by the former chess champion Garry Kasparov and the controversial writer Eduard Limonov, which has no media coverage, little support and is banned from taking part in the vote.

Campaigning for a big election turnout in Moscow yesterday, Mr Putin denounced Other Russia, without naming their leaders, as foreign-fed " jackals". Referring to opposition marches planned for the weekend, he said: "Now, they're going to take to the streets. They have learned from Western experts and have received some training in neighbouring [ex-Soviet] republics. And now they are going to stage provocations here."

In Vladivostok, Other Russia has just 70 members. Its regional co-ordinator, Tatyana Korchevnaya, claims the population is not apathetic, but believes any resistance to United Russia is futile.

The election in numbers


Percentage of prime-time TV news coverage devoted to Mr Putin in October


Percentage of prime-time news coverage devoted to United Russia in October


Percentage of prime-time news coverage devoted to other parties in October


Latest approval rating for work of Duma


Latest approval rating for President Putin