Putin election victory was 'neither free nor fair'

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The Independent Online

America and some European governments have accused President Vladimir Putin of failing to hold free and fair parliamentary elections after his United Russia party was confirmed as the runaway winner, garnering nearly six times as many votes as the Communists, who finished in second place.

Criticism from inside and outside the country grew as more evidence came to light of electoral violations in the poll on Sunday. The Communist Party said it would challenge the vote in court, as it became clear that skewed media coverage and pressure on citizens to vote for United Russia was supplemented by an array of violations on voting day itself.

The Foreign Office released a statement expressing concern over "allegations of electoral malpractice which, if proven correct, would suggest that the Russian elections were neither free nor fair". The German Foreign Ministry spokesman said: "Russia was not a democracy and Russia is not a democracy. The elections were not free, not fair and not democratic." The Bush administration also called for an inquiry into irregularities.

The number of European observers was limited after the election monitoring arm of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) declined to send a team, citing a lack of co-operation from the Russians. A joint statement from the European observers who did attend said that the vote "was not fair and failed to meet many OSCE and Council of Europe commitments and standards for democratic elections". A Russian electoral official dismissed the statement and said it was "dictated from abroad".

Speaking after Mr Putin described the election victory as "legitimate", his spokesman Dmitry Peskov rejected Western criticism of the head of state's leading role in the electoral campaign but said that specific complaints would be investigated. "We would disagree with statements that Russia is undemocratic and the election was undemocratic," he said.

The new Duma was elected solely on the basis of party lists, meaning that even the few isolated critical voices from the last sitting have been squeezed out, and the only party likely to criticise the Kremlin, of the four that made it past the 7 per cent barrier, was the Communists. There are no pro-Western factions in the new Duma.

The Russian organisation Golos, which conducted independent monitoring of the vote, reported violations in almost all the regions it was working in. Liliya Shibanova, the organisation's executive director, said there were "mass violations" across the country. "Of course, they almost all favoured United Russia," she said. "They were on a scale that puts the outcome in doubt." In Chechnya, the pro-United Russia vote attained Soviet-era standards with 99 per cent voting for Mr Putin's party.

The election was widely seen as a referendum on Mr Putin's administration and the results are certain to rekindle speculation about his future, as the president is constitutionally barred from serving a third term in office. Mr Peskov confirmed that with 315 seats in parliament, and 64 percent of the vote, United Russia would have the necessary majority in parliament to amend the constitution. But he told The Independent that he "wouldn't expect" that the basic law would be amended so that the president could serve another consecutive term.

Mr Putin would have a "very, very important voice" in choosing the presidential candidate of United Russia at a party congress on 17 December, Mr Peskov added. "It is now clear to me that Russians will never allow their country to develop along the destructive path seen in some other countries of the former Soviet Union," said Mr Putin, apparently referring to Ukraine and Georgia, where pro-Western revolutions have led to political instability.