Putin's party is accused of cheating at polls

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The Independent Online

Russia's ruling party cemented its grip on power with big victories in local elections, as the opposition complained of widespread cheating.

Despite the worst economic crisis in a decade, the ruling United Russia party held huge advantages in all nine regional parliamentary elections and in thousands of municipal votes, according to preliminary results from the Central Elections Commission.

Opponents put part of that down to alleged electoral machinations, and analysts said the economic troubles have not yet hit hard enough to turn voters against the popular Putin's deeply entrenched party en masse.

Russia's only independent election monitoring organization, Golos, alleged "mass violations" in several regions. It said the greatest number of complaints came from Tatarstan, where United Russia garnered 80 per cent of the vote — its best result.

United Russia overwhelmingly dominates Russia's politics, and critics say the party and submissive authorities routinely manipulate ballot counts, pressure voters and block opposition politicians from running for office.

United Russia controls the national parliament, which includes three other parties: the Communists, the right-wing Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, and the recently formed left-wing Just Russia.

Critics say only the Communists can be considered genuine opposition to United Russia.

Nonetheless, Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky joined Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov in protesting the pressure that local authorities allegedly heaped on the parties' local representatives.

"It was a very dirty campaign," Zyuganov told a news conference.

"There are shortcomings causing our indignation and irritation," Zhirinovsky said. He said the party believes it was deprived of votes by an unfair campaign.

Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky were quoted in Russian media as saying their regional representatives had been blocked from meeting voters and handing out party literature.

Zyuganov's deputy, Ivan Melnikov, said their party had sent complaints to the Central Elections Commission and to prosecutors.

All three rival parties voiced their concerns about pressure on regional representatives in a parliament session last week. Zhirinovsky's faction walked out in protest at the alleged beating of a candidate for the provincial legislature in Nizhny Novgorod.

Golos said violations included ballot-stuffing and hindering its observers, including by expelling them from several polling stations without explanation. The group said party literature was visible near many polling places, without saying which party, and alleged that factory bosses at the Kamaz truck plant in Tatarstan checked which employees had voted.

The government's Central Elections Commission, which has dismissed criticism of past votes, said in a statement that there were no serious violations.

Masha Lipman, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, said United Russia was popular enough without needing to artificially boost its results.

She said most violations apparently were due to local administrators keen to improve their career prospects.

"What the bureaucrats care most about is to please their superiors," Lipman said.

Russia has been hit hard by the global financial crisis and low prices for the oil that fueled a nearly decade-long boom under Putin, who helped guide his protege Dmitry Medvedev into the presidency last year. But Lipman said that despite low-level unrest due to layoffs and pay cuts, the effects of the meltdown had not sunk deeply enough into regional communities for that to be reflected in voting.

The Communists' best result came in the Vladimir region, with almost 30 percent; while the Liberal Democratic Party's top score, almost 20 percent, was registered in the Nenetsk region.

The Just Russia party, which analysts say was created by the Kremlin to attract Communist voters, scored about 18 percent in the Vladimir region.

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