Skewed TV coverage of election gives Putin the edge

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The Independent Online

This evening, Russians will turn on their television sets after dinner to sights and sounds that have been familiar to West Europeans and Americans for decades, but are still a novelty in Russia. From 8pm, at least four television channels are airing "election specials", some of them scheduled to run through the night, with all the star presenters, top political analysts and hi-tech wizardry they can muster.

In the hours before, millions of Russians - though rather fewer than in Soviet times - will have gone to the polls to elect their new national parliament, the Duma. Eleven regional leaders are also being elected, and a clutch of local legislatures as well.

The body that runs and monitors the election, the Central Election Commission, has installed a super-computer that is supposed to be able to calculate the results to two decimal points as each constituency return is filed. It has also refurbished its central Moscow headquarters to provide glitzy studio facilities, fitted out by the television companies in different variations of patriotic red, white and blue. There are multiple computer links and vast screens to help reporters follow developments all over this 10-time-zone country.

So far, assuming the technology holds up, so good. Promising, too, is the extent to which the election rules have been observed by Russia's media - and, indeed, by the candidates and their parties, in the three months of campaigning. Each party was allocated a fixed amount of free air time that they could use as they wished.

In the past two weeks, there were also almost nightly televised debates, involving four to six of the 23 registered parties at any one time. As time went on, the arguments became more substantial, the politicians more adept at presenting their case in the allotted time, and members of the audience increasingly flocked to the microphones to join in.

No opinion polls were allowed to be taken or published after Tuesday, and they have not been. Campaigning - on air and on the streets - ended at midnight on Friday. Yesterday was a politics-free day; television showed mostly nature programmes, quiz shows and variety performances. Yet this picture of scrupulous fairness and discipline is not all it seems. There was a big elephant behind, and often in the centre of, the television screen, and it was called United Russia. This is the party set up four years ago as an alliance of two other parties, to provide a vehicle for President Putin's policies in the Duma. In that short time, it has come close to being, as its own campaign literature boasts, the "party of power".

United Russia has the clout, and the money, that comes from its Kremlin patronage. Together, these assets have become known during the campaign as "administrative resources". Without necessarily breaking any electoral rules, United Russia has none the less been able to impose itself in a way none of the other parties could approach.

Its posters and banners stayed in place, while those of other parties were mysteriously torn down. In the past three weeks of the campaign, television news, even though not directly state-controlled, gave President Putin the top slot almost every day.

The pro-Kremlin news items were often followed by items that showed United Russia's main opponents, the Communists, in a negative light. Initially, United Russia appeared to regard the free-market reformists as the main threat; but it subsequently switched targets.

Over the past week, news broadcasts showed appalling urban and rural neglect - but only in constituencies where Communists were in power. There were also strategically placed reminders of the bad old days, including lengthy coverage of a demonstration by supporters of Orthodox priests and monks repressed in the Soviet Union. No mention was made of the fact that the demonstration had been organised by United Russia's youth wing.

This skewed coverage attracted the attention of observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe in their interim report, published last weekend, which expressed serious misgivings not about the conduct of the election as such, but about the bias that observers detected in the media.

Perhaps as a result of that report, or because their pollsters told them that the mission had been accomplished, the pro-Kremlin bias of television news was less marked in the latter part of the week. United Russia is aiming for more than 30 per cent of the vote and the election of a good number of allies. Anything less than 30 per cent, and its tactical use of "administrative resources" will have rebounded.