Putin's party sweeps into power

Allies of President Vladimir Putin won a sweeping victory in Russia’s elections today but European human rights officials condemned the poll as having fallen short of international legal requirements and representing a retreat from democratic reforms.

Allies of President Vladimir Putin won a sweeping victory in Russia’s elections today but European human rights officials condemned the poll as having fallen short of international legal requirements and representing a retreat from democratic reforms.

With more than 98% of the vote counted, United Russia – a pro-Putin party led by Cabinet ministers – won 37.1% of the vote, leaving its rivals far behind, said Election Commission Chairman Alexander Veshnyakov.

The Communists were next, with 12.7%, followed by the party of flamboyant nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky – the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia – at 11.6%. Homeland, a new, apparently Kremlin-approved patriotic grouping formed to syphon votes from the Communists, had 9.1%, preliminary results showed.

Putin said in televised remarks that the elections were ”another step in strengthening Russia’s democracy.”

But international observers delivered a blistering assessment of the elections, saying they were free – but not fair. Monitors criticised the use of taxpayer money and state television for the benefit of particular parties.

The head of the parliamentary assembly for the Organisation for the Security and Co-operation in Europe, Bruce George, said the ballot “failed to meet international standards.

“Our main impression of the overall electoral process was one of regression in the democratisation of this country,” he said.

He expressed concern that because of the use of administrative resources and the biased media that legitimate democratic opposition parties would not meet the 5% barrier that would allow them to have representation in the next parliament.

Russia’s two main liberal parties, Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces, known by its Russian acronym SPS, were below the minimum necessary to enter the parliament as parties.

Turnout for the vote appeared lower than past elections, with many Russians disillusioned and uninspired by the generally lacklustre campaign. Two hours before polls closed, turnout was 47.6%, significantly lower than the 53.9% recorded at the same time during the last Duma vote, in 1999.

Nearly 5% of the electorate – or about 2.8 million people – voted to reject all the candidates. The protest votes mean that in four constituencies, run-off elections must be held, election officials said.

More might in the 450 seat State Duma, Russia’s lower parliament house, would make it easier for Putin to push through the sometimes unpopular market-oriented economic reforms he has promised and cut the bureaucracy that stifles Russian growth.

It would also give Putin an even stronger hand as he heads into what seems sure to be a second term after the presidential ballot next March.

“The United Russia party has won, the president has won. That means that democratic reforms in Russia will continue. This is a serious victory we can rightly be proud of,” said Lyubov Sliska, a top figure in United Russia.

Kremlin critics, however, fear too much power for Putin could prompt a drift closer to authoritarianism.

Analysts said United Russia and its allies were angling for a two-thirds majority required to make constitutional changes – a lever they could use to extend Putin’s term or let him run for a third term, provided the pliant upper parliament house, Russia’s regional parliaments and the president himself approve.

The surprisingly strong showing by Zhirinovsky’s party might also help the Kremlin. In the outgoing Duma, the LDPR almost always voted the Kremlin line despite Zhirinovsky’s fiery statements and populist politicking.

Veshnyakov said Yabloko and SPS had polled 4.3% and 4%, respectively – below the 5% minimum needed to cross over the Duma’s threshold.

SPS chief Boris Nemtsov expressed alarm at the strong showings by United Russia and the nationalist parties, suggesting they will act together to tighten government control over the economy and society.

“The majority will belong to those who stand for a police state, for curtailing civic freedoms, for shutting down independent judicial authority” and for antagonistic relations with Russia’s neighbours and the West, Nemtsov said.

Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov dismissed the elections as a “disgusting show ... that has nothing to do with democracy,” and the head of the Communists’ Moscow branch, Alexander Kuvayev, claimed widespread violations in the capital, including ballot-box stuffing and votes cast for dead people.

He vowed the party would protest at what he said were falsified results.

Half the Duma seats will be distributed proportionately among the parties winning more than 5% of the nationwide vote, while the other 225 seats will be filled by the winners of individual district races, who may or may not be affiliated with a party.

The full extent of the Kremlin’s power over the lower parliament house will not be clear until after results from those races – and the allegiance of nominally independent deputies – is known.

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