Russian elections filled with slurs and rancor

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The Independent Online

The campaign for Sunday's parliamentary elections has had everything Russian voters have come to expect from legislators: grandiose rhetoric, vicious attacks and very few ideas.

The campaign for Sunday's parliamentary elections has had everything Russian voters have come to expect from legislators: grandiose rhetoric, vicious attacks and very few ideas.

Character slurs rather than issues have dominated the campaign for the State Duma, the lower chamber of parliament. Political parties, ranging from Communists to pro-Western liberals, have offered the same message: only they can provide the strong leadership needed to rescue Russia and everyone else is a crook or a fool.

"Most of the parties have not offered constructive programs and built their campaigns on viciously assailing their opponents," said Yevgeny Volk, director of the Heritage Foundation's Moscow office.

Looming over the Duma race is the election next summer to replace President Boris Yeltsin - which has made the parliamentary vote even nastier.

Still, there are signs that Russian politics are becoming more stable. The new Duma may spend more time tackling issues, analysts say, a big change for a chamber notorious for incessant squabbling and occasional fist fights.

And while the Communists have a good chance of remaining the biggest party, centrist parties stand to do better, polls suggest, although they might not be able to form an effective alliance.

"These elections will lead to a political breakthrough," predicted Nikolai Petrov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

But if things are better in the new Duma, the election campaign has been full of the raucous rivalry that dominated the old chamber. In television elections ads, the main form of campaigning, parties compare their opponents to Josef Stalin and other dictators or suggest they have private yachts and own lots of stocks on Wall Street.

Parties rarely talk about platforms or how they would make life better in a land where the economy has been in decline for a decade, millions of workers go months without being paid and the health system, schools and other services are falling apart.

Instead, each party offers the same promise of tough leadership. The message appeals to many Russians, but there is also widespread disillusionment with politics.

"What's the point of voting. We need real leaders, but none of these politicians can fix things," said Mikhail Pankratov, an unemployed factory worker.

Altogether, 26 parties are competing in the election for the next Duma. Half of the Duma's 450 seats are filled on party lists, with groups getting more than 5 percent of the vote winning places. The other 225 seats are filled through races in electoral districts.

Opinion polls suggest up to sremlin Unity; the centrist, anti-Yeltsin Fatherland-All Russia; the social democratic Yabloko; the pro-market Union of Right Forces; and the bloc of flamboyant nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

The Duma has limited powers with the president appointing the prime minister and the Cabinet. It controls legislation and taxation, but the outgoing, Communist-dominated Duma spent the past four years quarreling with Yeltsin and losing every major confrontation with the president.

With Yeltsin barred from seeking a third term, the president's allies want to retain power by installing their own candidate and have seen the Duma vote as a first step.

So far, the Kremlin's choice to succeed Yeltsin is Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, whose handling of the war against rebels in Chechnya turned him overnight from a minor bureaucrat into the country's most popular politician.

The Kremlin in September formed a new political party, Unity, to offset its lack of support in the Duma. Unity, which also promises strong leadership and has the Kremlin bankrolling its huge campaign, is running neck-and-neck with the Communists, each polling between 17 percent and 20 percent, according to the most recent polls.

Putin, an ex-KGB officer who comes across as a tough leader, has backed Unity, headed by another man of action, Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu, one of the few popular ministers in the government.

The Kremlin has used state-controlled television to mount a slur campaign against the rival Fatherland-All Russia, headed by ex-Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, both prominent presidential aspirants and Yeltsin opponents. News programs on state TV allege that Luzhkov is corrupt and portray the 70-year-old Primakov as too ill to hold office.

The Kremlin's campaign appears to have worked. After briefly soaring in opinion polls during the summer, Fatherland has slumped while Unity has taken off. Some analysts warn opinion polls are too crude to be reliable or are biased, but their track record is generally good.

Despite the seamy election campaign, many analysts say democracy is taking hold because all the main political parties accept that power must be transferred by the ballot.

Voting begins in the Russian Far East at 8pm GMT today and ends at 6pm GMT tomorrow in the western region of Kalingrad. The preliminary results are expected at 7am GMT on Monday.

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