Vote rigging fears persist ahead of Russia's presidential election


TOMORROW’S PRESIDENTIAL election in Russia will be the most highly monitored poll in Europe’s history. But suspicions of fraud remain and demonstrations have been organised to protest against a result that is almost certain to mean prime minister Vladimir Putin returns to the Kremlin after a four-year hiatus.

Mr Putin has announced that president Dmitriy Medvedev will take over from him as prime minister, but political insiders here suggest this may be a short-term arrangement.

Fears of irregularities at the polls have been fuelled by pressure on the country’s leading independent election observation group, Golos (Voice). The public prosecutor’s office has announced that it has warned the group that its plans to text results from polling stations to a central local location is illegal. But a Golos representative said it had received no warning and its activities were within the law.

In Russia voting and vote counting takes place separately in each of the 91,000 polling stations.

The results are then entered on an official document known as a “protocol” and this is transmitted electronically to the central election commission in Moscow where it is entered on the mainframe computer and added to the national total.

In parliamentary elections in December the main problem encountered by observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) was that in many polling stations its representatives were unable to see the “protocol” to check if it tallied with the actual results.

The most widely reported instance of cheating in the December elections concerned Klavdia Titova the returning officer at polling station 655 in the city of Samara.

Ms Titova was seen leaving the station through a ground floor window, taking the protocol with her. When she eventually returned the protocol had been amended to record an extra 322 votes for Mr Putin’s United Russia party.

Mr Putin has fuelled concerns about irregularities by alleging that opponents were preparing bogus material in an attempt to accuse him and his supporters of fraud.

His opponents responded by suggesting Mr Putin had made the statement so that his people could falsify results and blame the opposition.

As a consequence of this atmosphere of mutual mistrust, thousands of ordinary Russian citizens have availed of a legal clause allowing any Russian to sign on as an observer.

They have been encouraged to do so by Alexei Navalny a right-wing anti-corruption blogger who has captured the imagination of many Russians. In addition to observers there will be 182,000 electronic cameras focusing on events at the polling stations.

The cameras may be useful in identifying the stuffing of ballot boxes, but it would be difficult for them to produce evidence of tampering with the results protocol before it is sent to Moscow.

Candidates’ representatives will also be present as observers, as will members of a number of international organisations.

The most prominent of these is the OSCE – Ireland holds the presidency – which will deploy two teams.

One group consists of politicians from the organisation’s parliamentary assembly, while the other consists of experienced observers representing its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).

This group’s mission, headed by ambassador Heidi Tagliavini of Switzerland, comprises a 15-member core team of experts, 40 long-term observers who have been in position in different locations throughout Russia since January and 160 short-term observers who arrived this week and have been deployed in Moscow and the provinces for polling day.

Despite its expertise the limited size of the ODIHR team ensures it can only report on events at a tiny percentage of the stations.

As for the opposition ranged against Mr Putin, it divides into two distinct groups: those who stand for election and those who demonstrate on the streets.

When people in Moscow talk of “the opposition” they are not referring to the four candidates who will contest the election against Mr Putin.

All of them are perceived to be part of the “managed democracy” instituted by Mr Putin and Mr Medvedev over the past 12 years.

They are talking about the people who demonstrate regularly on the streets of Moscow and other cities.

Already a mass rally has been announced for Pushkin Square in Moscow for Monday evening. Another is scheduled for the capital next Thursday, which is a national holiday for International Women’s Day.

The protests are likely to continue at the weekend.

Communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov is the only opponent who is not viewed as having been part of the Putin team. But he and his party appear satisfied with being in second place and have been reluctant to rock the boat.

Mr Zyuganov is, however, the only candidate who has been supported by one of the leaders of the street demonstrations having been backed officially by Sergei Udaltsov of the Left Front movement. Mr Udaltsov co-ordinates the logistical operation of the street rallies but represents a minority political viewpoint.

The ultra right-wing Vladimir Zhirinovsky from the inaptly named Liberal Democrat Party rails against the government in public but supports them in parliament.

The other two men in the field, billionaire businessman Mikhail Prokhorov, who is standing as an independent, and Sergei Mironov of the left-of-centre “A Just Russia” party have recently proclaimed Mr Putin as Russia’s ideal president.

Opinion polls in the run-up to the vote have indicated that Mr Putin could get up to 66 per cent of the vote, but there are indications that his support might be less than that.

Some voters, whether interviewed by pollsters either face-to-face or over the telephone, may be reluctant to reveal their opposition to the authorities.

In the December elections the usually reliable Levada poll was correct in indicating a substantial decline in support for Mr Putin’s United Russia Party. But the actual fall was considerably larger than the poll had predicted.