Vote In Key Moscow Suburb Highlights Electoral Fraud Claims

By Tom Balmforth, Claire Bigg
Last updated (GMT/UTC): 15.10.2012 18:07
MOSCOW -- Pro-Kremlin and opposition supporters are trading barbs and blows following local polls around Russia that handed the ruling party an easy victory in most races.
Early results from the October 14 vote in 77 of Russia's 83 regions showed the United Russia party won all five provincial governorship races and largely dominated mayoral and local parliamentary votes.
President Vladimir Putin, speaking during a meeting with Central Election Commission chief Vladimir Churov in Moscow Oblast on October 15, suggested the vote results were just another feather in his ruling party's cap.
"The election results are no surprise to me," Putin said. "I think the voters have once again confirmed their intention to support the existing government institutions and the development of Russian statehood, and I am very grateful to our voters for that."
But opposition leaders and independent observers say the polls, the first big elections since Vladimir Putin returned to the Kremlin for a third presidential term in May, were marred by widespread violations -- a charge authorities vehemently deny.
Golos, an independent Western-funded monitoring group, gave a pessimistic assessment of the elections at a news conference the day after the vote.
"Golos's evaluation is that the situation at regional, local, and municipal elections has not changed substantially," the group's director, Liliya Shibanova, said. "Technologies are still being used for falsification, coercing voters, and a wide range of these technologies for manipulating elections remain. All this means that we have not budged forward an iota from the critical situation when in practice there is no real competition and no real elections in Russia."
Gloves Off In Khimki
Much of the finger-pointing took place in the key Moscow suburb of Khimki, where defeated opposition candidate and prominent environmental campaigner Yevgenia Chirikova accused authorities of stealing votes from the opposition through rampant ballot-stuffing and multiple-voting schemes.
Electoral officials dismissed Chirikova's claims, including allegations that hundreds of new residents were registered in one apartment block alone shortly before the election.
Observers also accuse several electoral officials of hiding voter lists, a practice that led to a lengthy dispute and brawl at one of Khimki's polling stations.
Footage of the scuffle is making the rounds on the Internet.
Chirikova herself -- seen at around the 1 minute mark of the video -- said she was manhandled by a local electoral official.
"The commission's executive secretary insulted me publicly -- he campaigned against me," Chirikova said. "Then he tried to assault me and tore my mobile phone out of my hands."
Early results show Chirikova placing second with 18 percent after United Russia-backed acting Mayor Oleg Shakhov, who looks to have garnered 48 percent.
Tensions ran high in Khimki since it was one of just two races in which prominent anti-Putin activists challenged Kremlin-backed candidates.
The other closely-watched race took place in Barnaul, the capital of the Altai region, where leading liberal politician Vladimir Ryzhkov complained of similar voting irregularities in his constituency.
Low Turnout Could Hurt Opposition
One reason for the opposition's drubbing was the overall low voter turnout.
"Authorities carried out practically no agitation to encourage people to go and vote," Aleksei Mukhin, head of the Moscow-based Center for Political Information think tank, says. "Low turnout very much works in favor of United Russia, since mainly state employees and pensioners vote for the party -- people who will vote whatever happens."
Another factor, according to Mukhin, was the opposition's failure to put forward a united front and convincing programs.
The government, meanwhile, was quick to hail the polls and dismiss claims of voting irregularities.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who is also the chairman of United Russia, hailed the party's sweeping victory and said the election had been carried out in a "civilized manner."
Written by Claire Bigg in Prague based on reporting by Tom Balmforth in Moscow; additional reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service