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Wall Street Journal, December 2, 2003

Putin Rivals, Observers Charge Election Tactics Are Unfair

By Gregory L. White

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 for Security and Cooperation in Europe voiced "concern at the unequal campaign opportunities afforded to contestants." It cited "verified instances" of United Russia taking advantage of its administrative clout, including "a clear bias in the state-owned media in favor of United Russia and other pro-presidential parties."

The Kremlin is pushing hard to boost its support in the lower house of parliament. Government officials insist the push is aimed at easing the passage of President Vladimir Putin's program of economic and other overhauls.

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 for electoral purposes and insist they have earned their popular support.

But rival candidates in Moscow say they are struggling to get their message 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, it will be just like Soviet times with only one official candidate," says 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, even though 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. Polls 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 of 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 of 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 very concerned that the result of this administrative pressure will be disappointment in the very institution of elections," he says, leading to low voter turnout or more support for the "against all" choice on Russian ballots.


See also:

State Duma elections 2003

Wall Street Journal, December 2, 2003

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