Putin accused of election violation after televised campaign address

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The Independent Online

President Vladimir Putin warned the Russian people in a television address three days ahead of parliamentary elections that it was a "dangerous illusion" to assume the results were a foregone conclusion.

Mr Putin exhorted voters to back United Russia, the pro-Kremlin party whose parliamentary list he is heading, and whose popularity is largely based on its slavish devotion to the President.

United Russia's campaign coverage has focused on its status as the guardian of Mr Putin's political course, with the party's senior figures claiming that the vote was, in effect, a "referendum" on the President. In one of the most expensive advertising locations in Moscow, just off Red Square, a huge advertisement exclaims that "Moscow is voting for Putin!" in letters the size of double-decker buses.

A decisive victory for United Russia could be the platform for Mr Putin to continue wielding a powerful role after next March's presidential elections as he is constitutionally barred from serving a third term.

Opposition parties and analysts have said that new laws making it harder for smaller parties to make it into the Duma and an overwhelming media bias in favour of United Russia have made the elections a farce.

In his speech, Mr Putin laid out the achievements of his time in office. "The economy is growing solidly, and poverty is disappearing, albeit slowly," he said. He admitted that the war against terrorism was not yet won, but said terrorists had been dealt a "crushing blow".

Analysts said the speech was a violation of Russian law, which forbids Mr Putin from using his position as president to influence the vote. But the Kremlin claimed the address was made in Mr Putin's capacity as head of the United Russia party list, and not as president.

In recent weeks, the so-called "administrative resource" has been frequently used to ensure a good showing for United Russia. Earlier this week, a letter appeared on several websites, apparently written by a regional arm of United Russia in the city of Kemerovo to the local office of SUEK, a coal company, stating that the company's refusal to provide financial support to the local branch of United Russia was "a denial of support for President Putin". United Russia has claimed that the letter was a fake. There are also widespread reports of employees of state institutions and companies being pressured to vote for United Russia.

The party's aggressive tactics, combined with Mr Putin's undoubted personal popularity, looks set to provide aa favourable result. One poll, published last weekend, suggests that United Russia will win 371 of the Duma's 450 seats, easily giving it the two-thirds majority it needs to change the constitution. The remaining 79 seats would go to the Communists, with the other nine parties failing to break the 7 per cent barrier required to make it into the parliament. Another poll suggested that the Communists might also fall short of the 7 per cent required, giving United Russia a clean sweep.

The outgoing Duma was hardly a critical body, and acted largely as a rubber stamp for presidential laws. Its speaker, Boris Gryzlov, famously declared in 2005 that "parliament is not a place for discussion".

If polling predictions are correct, then the next duma will be even more servile to the President, who is to step down next year. But, said Dmitry Oreshkin, a political analyst, "anyone familiar with the election process will doubt the quality of any mandate Putin receives from this vote".

Other parties in the Duma

Communists

Still have a constituency among older voters, and most polls expect them to make the Duma.

LDPR

A nationalist circus sideshow run by veteran politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Largely loyal to Putin, and featuring Andrei Lugovoy as No 2 candidate. Close to achieving the 7 per cent mark needed for Duma entry but will probably fall just short.

Fair Russia

Second-tier pro-Kremlin party struggling for votes and very unlikely to make the Duma.

SPS

Formerly a moderate, influential liberal party. Now marginalised and critical of the Kremlin. One of its candidates has disseminated a video on the internet that features Putin surrounded by infernal flames, and calls him "the Devil".

Yabloko

Another liberal party, led by Grigory Yavlinksy. Very unlikely to make Duma.

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