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Monday, February 25, 2008

The Elections Charade: Barabarism in all its Horror

The Moscow Times reports more evidence of how popular Vladimir Putin is:

The Kremlin didn't need to lift a finger this time.

Governors know that they need the support of the likely next president, Dmitry Medvedev, to keep their jobs, and they are working hard to get out the vote for him on March 2, a senior election official said, "What's the best way to show the next president that you love him? In this election the answer is to guarantee him a good turnout so that Medvedev becomes Russia's legitimate president in everyone's eyes," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of fear of reprisal. The official's account was backed up by doctors, professors and businessmen who said they had been ordered to vote and increase turnout. Representatives of several governors' offices flatly denied trying to curry favor with the Kremlin.

Ahead of the State Duma elections in December, the Kremlin and United Russia ordered governors to ensure high turnouts, said the election official and other people familiar with the situation. But this time the initiative appears to have come from the governors themselves. "They didn't wait for orders to come from above," the official said. The president holds the power to appoint and dismiss governors after Putin ditched gubernatorial elections in 2004, ostensibly as a way to strengthen the state. With their future in the Kremlin's hands, governors and their administrations are eager to show Medvedev their loyalty. "Most governors have an agreement with Putin but not with Medvedev. Now they are working hard to build it," the official said.

After the governors started working on turnout, the Kremlin asked them to aim for at least 65 percent, the official said. If turnout is low, election officials are ready to stuff ballot boxes with absentee ballots, the official said. A Kremlin spokesman had no immediate comment Thursday. The Kremlin has denied similar claims about the Duma elections.

The 65 percent target seems attainable after average turnout for the Duma elections reached 63 percent. Recent nationwide surveys, however, indicate that only 54 percent of voters intend to cast their ballots on March 2. In practical terms, that means about 40 percent of voters will actually vote, the election official said. With opposition candidates prevented from running and Medvedev's victory all but a foregone conclusion, the Kremlin faces the specter of low turnout because of voter apathy. High turnout would especially help legitimize the vote after international observers decided to skip the election following Moscow-ordered restrictions that they said would severely hamper their work. To reach 65 percent, regional officials have turned for help to state hospitals, universities and big and medium-size factories.

Large factories have been asked to organize polling stations on their premises and demand that their workers get absentee ballots to vote there, the election official said. This way employers can check whether the workers voted. Some employers have asked workers to show them their absentee ballots, the official said. Employers are following orders in order to avoid trouble with the authorities. The owner of a factory outside Moscow said he had refused to help United Russia in the Duma elections and had subsequently been forced to pay a large fine after surprise tax and fire inspections in January uncovered alleged violations. "Only my connections have helped me keep my business. They told me to keep quiet this time and to do what they [the authorities] want," he said. "I had to ask my workers to go and vote," he said.

A doctor at a large Moscow hospital said she and the hospital's other 2,500 workers had been asked to get absentee ballots to vote at the hospital. The hospital's chief doctor, she said, had told the personnel that "it was important for the hospital to show a good turnout if it wanted to get funds from the state."

Election officials organize polling stations at hospitals on election day to allow patients to vote. Under the law, hospital workers can also vote at the polling stations if they file a simple written request. A dean at a private Moscow university said he had received a letter from a senior Moscow official asking that he attend a meeting "to prepare for the presidential election." About 20 officials from various Moscow universities attended the meeting, he said. "They told us that they had been asked to provide a high turnout. They said that if we performed well, we would be rewarded," he said. The dean said the Moscow official emphasized that the Kremlin was upset that student turnout in the Duma elections had been around 25 percent in the city. University officials were told to demand that their students obtain absentee ballots and vote at university polling stations. The dean said state universities would follow the orders to avoid funding cuts, while private schools wanted to avoid the prospect of being harassed by tax and fire inspectors.

Even low-ranking bureaucrats have an interest in getting out the vote because they are likely to lose their jobs if the Kremlin fires the governor. "New governor, new people. Everyone is working for his own future," the official said. There is also a financial incentive. Moscow district heads and election officials who helped United Russia in the Duma elections received cash bonuses, the official said. Regional administrations denied that governors wanted a high turnout to impress Medvedev. "Our governor was confirmed six months ago. He doesn't need to demonstrate anything to the new president," said Alexei Khastrikin, a spokesman for Bryansk Governor Nikolai Denin. "On our regional television channel you see more of Zhirinovsky and Zyuganov than Medvedev," he added. The three candidates running against Medvedev are Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Andrei Bogdanov, an independent.

Dagestani leader Mukhu Aliyev is not afraid of losing his job over a low turnout, said his spokesman, Abutalib Mamayev. "We had a 91 percent turnout [in the Duma elections]," he said. "People love Putin and love Medvedev, and I'm sure that the turnout will be the same this time."

In Moscow, election officials are prepared to stuff ballot boxes with absentee ballots if turnout does not reach 65 percent, the election official said. In previous elections, the official said, voters were packed into buses and ferried around to polling stations to vote "as many times as needed."

"If I have 30 people, I could take them to 10 polling stations and I have 300 more votes for the city," the official said. The official said Moscow district heads would have a good idea of their turnout figures by 4 p.m. on election day, since most people vote between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. If the turnout is low, they could then call in the buses. Authorities are also keeping an eye on people likely to vote against Medvedev, the official said. In Moscow, for example, authorities are not encouraging disgruntled residents of apartment buildings whose courtyards are being exploited by city developers to vote. "They know that people like that will vote against Medvedev. Who needs that?" the official said

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