No Surprises as Pro-Putin Party Sweeps Russian Election

By Sergei Blagov | July 7, 2008 | 8:18 PM EDT

Moscow ( - With President Vladimir Putin as its top candidate, the United Russia party won an overwhelming majority in Sunday's parliamentary elections, and together with its allies, it will have enough seats in the Duma to change the constitution.

With most of the ballots counted, Putin's United Russia party had about 64 percent of the vote.

Voting took place at nearly 100,000 polling stations across the world's biggest country, and was observed by just 400 international monitors.

European observers concluded that the elections were "not fair," the BBC reported on Monday.

Critics said there was a "strong bias" in the media in favor of Putin and his United Russia party and they also noted 'widespread' reports that Russia's opposition parties had been harassed.

Voters had a choice of 11 parties in the proportional representation election for the Duma's 450 seats.

Ahead of the election, the Kremlin amended Russia's electoral system by abolishing constituency voting and a minimum turnout requirement. Controversial changes also increased from five to seven percent the minimum of the total vote required by a party to enter parliament.

Preliminary results indicate that apart from the United Russia (64 percent), only the Communist Party (11.7 percent), the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party (8.4 percent) - which tends to support Kremlin policies in the Duma - and the pro-Kremlin Fair Russia Party (8 percent) looked to have achieved the threshold.

If final results bear that out, United Russia would have virtually no effective opposition.

Ahead of the poll, Putin claimed his critics were conspiring to cause Russia's "humiliation, dependence, and disintegration." He called his opponents "jackals" who were seeking money from foreign embassies to subvert Russia, playing on the theme - viewed as credible by many Russians - that Western governments funded plots to bring about Ukraine's "Orange Revolution" in 2004 and Georgia's 2003 "Rose Revolution."

Despite the small number of foreign observers and widespread accusations of intimidation and state-controlled media bias, the Kremlin-friendly Central Election Commission described Sunday's election as the most transparent vote in Russia so far.

But White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe urged Russian authorities to investigate reports of violations.

Last month, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's election-monitoring agency cancelled its plan to observe the poll, accusing the Russian government of limited the size of its mission and delays in issuing of visas. Moscow in turn accused the agency of acting under orders from Washington.

Liberal Democratic leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky accused international observers and the foreign media of bias, declaring that Western television coverage had focused on opposition leaders Garry Kasparov and Boris Nemtsov, whom he called "petty extremists."

Communist leader Guennady Zyuganov said the polls had been rigged in favor of United Russia, describing the elections as "dirty and disgusting."

Putin, 55, is widely expected to overhaul Russia's political system after Sunday's elections.

The constitution requires him to step down as president in May 2008, at the end of his second term. Elections for his successor are scheduled for March.

The president has stressed that he will neither violate nor amend the constitution to enable him a third consecutive term as president. True to his trademark ambiguity, he has also not said whether he will take a seat in parliament.

When he announced last October that he would head the United Russia list, Putin said he may consider serving as prime minister in the future. The statement sparked speculation that Putin may shift power towards the prime ministerial post, leaving the presidency largely ceremonial, although Putin has denied this.

Other theories circulation include Putin ensuring his successor is a weak politician who he can control before possibly running for the presidency again in 2012, if not earlier if the incumbent is forced to leave office early. A non-consecutive third term would not violate the constitution.

Presidential candidates have until December 23 to declare their candidacy, although none have yet done so. Potential candidates include Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov, 66 - recently appointed by Putin - and Zubkov's two first deputies, Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev.

With the Kremlin characterizing Sunday's vote as a referendum on Putin, Russian and outside observers are watching closely to see how referendum winner plans to use the results of the poll.

See Earlier Story:
What's Putin Up To, Russians Wonder (Nov. 29, 2007)

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