| MOSCOW -- The pro-Kremlin United Russia party is picking
up steam ahead of
Sunday's parliamentary elections, but rivals and independent election
observers increasingly are crying foul about its heavy-handed tactics.
In a report released Monday, election observers from the Organization
Security and Cooperation in Europe voiced "concern at the unequal
opportunities afforded to contestants." It cited "verified instances"
United Russia taking advantage of its administrative clout, including
clear bias in the state-owned media in favor of United Russia and other
The Kremlin is pushing hard to boost its support in the lower house
parliament. Government officials insist the push is aimed at easing the
passage of President Vladimir Putin's program of economic and other
But critics say Mr. Putin is trying to squelch dissent, part of a broader
campaign to neutralize potential challenges to his authority.
United Russia officials deny they are misusing their official positions
electoral purposes and insist they have earned their popular support.
But rival candidates in Moscow say they are struggling to get their
out to voters. The capital's metro and major streets are plastered with
billboards and signs for United Russia .
"If this trend continues, it's clear there won't be any real elections,
will be just like Soviet times with only one official candidate,"
Boris Fyodorov, a former finance minister who is running in a Moscow
district. He says local officials have intimidated his campaign workers,
torn down his posters, and prevented him from renting billboard space.
Mikhail Zadornov, a deputy
from the liberal Yabloko party running for re-election in another Moscow
district, says he faces similar official resistance, known in Russian
as "administrative resource."
"I've never faced this level of use of administrative resource,
this is my fourth campaign for the Duma," he says.
Robert Barry, deputy head of the OSCE monitoring mission, said opposition
candidates have run into pressure particularly in the 28 regions where
governors are supporting United Russia .
The two main national television networks, over which the Kremlin has
tightened its control under Mr. Putin, showered United Russia with positive
coverage, according to the OSCE report, while reporting almost exclusively
negative things about the Communist Party, the largest opposition group.
Other parties get little attention. The OSCE said there is no sign "that
this apparent violation of the election law is being pursued."
So far, the heavy push behind United Russia seems to be paying off.
show United Russia comfortably leading with about 30% of the vote, likely
to become the first pro-Kremlin party to win in parliamentary elections
since the Soviet collapse in 1991, breaking the Communists' winning streak.
The Communist Party is expected to get about 20%, down from 24% in the
elections in 1999.
Half of the 450 seats in the Duma are allocated based on the results
party-list voting, with seats going proportionately to parties that win
more than 5% of the vote. The remaining seats are filled by the winners
contests in districts around the country.
Mr. Zadornov, the Moscow Yabloko deputy, said the heavy use of
administrative resource could backfire in the young democracy. "I'm
concerned that the result of this administrative pressure will be
disappointment in the very institution of elections," he says, leading
low voter turnout or more support for the "against all" choice
State Duma elections