Putin calls for Russians to vote amid fears of low turnout at polls

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The Independent Online

President Vladimir Putin went on television yesterday to appeal to Russians to vote in this Sunday's presidential poll amid signs that the Kremlin fears its very success in marginalising the opposition may discredit the election and lead to a low turnout.

In order to ensure that more than 50 per cent of voters cast a ballot, local government is under intense pressure to turn out the voters. In Khabarovsk in the east of the country a hospital says its doctors will refuse to treat patients on Sunday unless they can show a voucher to prove they have already voted by absentee ballot.

"Each of our votes has huge significance," said Mr Putin, who is expected to win 80 per cent of the poll against five obscure candidates. "Taking part in the election is a unique opportunity to influence the developments in your homeland."

Voters are dubious, however, that they possess any influence over the Russian political system. In the four years he has been president Mr Putin has re-established the power of the state machine after its decline under President Boris Yeltsin. Politically powerful oligarchs have been exiled or jailed. Television and most of the media is under Kremlin control.

Ironically Mr Putin would certainly win a fair election but, as under the Soviet Union, no local leader wants his loyalty to be in doubt and so seeks to eliminate any sign of opposition.

The ethos of Mr Putin's administration is intolerant of any criticism. The two main state-owned television stations simply did not mention the double failure of Russian nuclear submarines to launch ballistic missiles during a naval exercise which Mr Putin attended.

The lack of reaction to the elimination of any opposition to the Kremlin is explained by steady economic growth and the discrediting of many of Mr Putin's opponents under Mr Yeltsin. Outside Chechnya, and apart from a few oligarchs, there have been few victims of his rule. But the largely uncontested election underlines that the Russian political system has been shorn of all checks and balances. If, in future, Mr Putin does face real resistance to his policies then the machinery is now in place for him to quash it.