Putin expected to gain as Russia goes to the polls


Russia began voting today in a parliamentary election overshadowed by a train bombing near Chechnya that appeared unlikely to stop parties backing President Vladimir Putin from making gains.

The poll, only the fourth since the end of Soviet rule, is expected to strengthen Mr Putin's mandate to press economic reforms while re-asserting tighter control over political life.

The pro-Putin United Russia bloc has campaigned on a law-and-order, anti-corruption platform and pollsters predict an increase in its lead over the still-strong communists, possibly wiping out the liberal opposition altogether. This would place Mr Putin in an unstoppable position if he runs for a second term in the Kremlin next March.

Voters were electing a new State Duma (lower house) after a dull campaign marked by curbs on the media, a Kremlin drive against oil giant YUKOS that has unnerved big business and - until Friday - an information blackout on the war in Chechnya. The separatist war in Chechnya forced its way back onto the agenda when at least 42 people were killed by a suspected suicide bombing on the packed commuter train in southern Russia, and Itar-Tass news agency reported 370,000 policeman would be on the streets to make sure the poll passed peacefully.

The Kremlin has indicated it fears a low turnout among the 109 million Russians eligible to vote, and in Vladivostok, where local election results have been annulled 24 times through low turn-out, many residents could not be bothered to vote.

"Nothing will change, everything is decided beforehand. There was United Russia and it will remain. Of course, I'll still hope, but I don't expect anything special," said one 50-year-old man, who did not give his name.