Putin scrambles to avert low turnout in election

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Vladimir Putin has broadcast a nationwide appeal to Russians to vote in tomorrow's presidential election, implicitly admitting official fears there could be an embarrassingly low turnout.

His televised address was the culmination of a week in which the official emphasis has switched from wall-to-wall coverage of Mr Putin's chosen heir, Dmitry Medvedev, to repeated calls to voters to show up.

To some, the appeals conjured up the propaganda campaigns before Soviet-era elections, when 99 per cent turnouts were the official norm. To others, they had more in common with US get-out-the-vote drives in the last hours before the polls open. Either way, they were the last shots in a slick campaign in which the outcome has never been in doubt.

The final polls, earlier this week, gave Mr Medvedev almost 70 per cent of the vote, with the Communist Gennady Zyuganov and the far-right populist Vladimir Zhirinovsky just reaching double figures. The fourth candidate, Andrei Bogdanov, of the little-known Democratic Party, had a bare 1 per cent.

Mr Putin described the elections as the "second and decisive stage in renewing the highest power in the land". The positive changes that had taken place under his presidency, he said, had to be continued; big and complex tasks lay ahead. In a supplicant's tone unusual for a Russian leader, he concluded: "I am asking you to go to the polls on Sunday, and cast your vote for our common future, for the future of Russia."

The problem for the Kremlin is that traditionally there is a higher turnout at presidential elections than for parliamentary polls. The fact that parliamentary elections were held just over three months ago, however, and the unassailable poll lead held by Mr Medvedev have fostered widespread apathy. Yet a lower turnout than in December could be interpreted as suggesting less than enthusiastic support for Mr Putin's candidate. And a mandate deemed deficient in any way could give Mr Medvedev a less than ideal start.

The Kremlin may also have seen a late threat to turnout in the final televised debate of the campaign, on Thursday, which did not go entirely according to script. Like the previous debates, this one involved only the three no-hope candidates. Mr Medvedev had opted out, claiming that, with his deputy prime ministerial responsibilities, he had more important things to do.

The three candidates pitched their case and argued in a futuristic studio, almost as though an election really was at stake.

The final confrontation, however, exposed the charade. Mr Zyuganov and Mr Zhirinovsky dropped their attacks on each other and turned on the absent Mr Medvedev. They accused him of being "risk averse" and showing contempt for the democratic process. "He declined to come because he has nothing to say to ordinary citizens and does not respect them," shouted Mr Zyuganov.

They also condemned the electoral process as a travesty, advancing arguments about representation, media fairness and the count that could have come straight from Russia's Western critics. "They can't allow any other party to become the governing party," shouted Mr Zhirinovsky. "Millions are being forced to vote for the 'necessary' candidate."

Earlier, Mr Bogdanov had walked out, complaining that he was not being allowed to get a word in.

The diatribes against the election that followed from Mr Zyuganov and Mr Zhirinovsky meant that a mainstream Russian audience was exposed to virulent criticism of the Putin "system" in terms that were readily comprehensible and could not be dismissed as subversive, as Western attacks commonly are. They gave Mr Putin's eve-of-poll broadcast additional point.