Russians elect parliament as Putin plans comeback
Russians went to the polls Sunday in key parliamentary elections expected to hand victory to Vladimir Putin's party amid claims of campaign fraud and unprecedented intimidation of observers.
The elections to the lower house of parliament, the 450-deputy State Duma, are seen as a key test of Putin's ability to hold on to power as he prepares to reclaim his old Kremlin job in March presidential elections amid growing disillusionment over his 11-year rule.
The world's largest country is spread over nine time zones and as Moscow was asleep, naval officers, oil workers and deer herders were already voting at polling stations from diamond-mining Yakutia to Magadan, site of Soviet-era Gulag camps.
Some said they would support Putin's United Russia, while others noted they had so far seen nothing from it but empty promises.
Anastasia Levchenko, a former United Russia supporter from the Pacific city of Vladivostok, said the ruling party had done virtually nothing over the past four years.
"I am disappointed," said the 62-year-old retiree, adding she voted for left-leaning party A Just Russia.
But Nikolai Ponomaryov, a warrant officer from the Marshal Shaposhnikov anti-submarine warship based in the Pacific port, said he voted for Putin's party because he saw changes for the better.
"Already this spring my family will get an apartment in a new district," he said, noting that Putin's party was defending the interests of the army and that he also expected a salary hike from January.
"I link these changes with the work of United Russia," he said as his uniformed colleagues queued outside a polling station early Sunday.
Election officials in the resource-rich region of Chukotka populated by deer herders said voters were braving freezing temperatures as they realised the significance of electing parliament for the next five years.
"Despite temperatures of 26 degrees below zero voters are coming to polling stations," said Konstantin Mikhailov, head of the election commission in the city of Anadyr in Chukotka half of which lies above the Arctic circle.
Putin, who was recently booed at a martial arts fight -- a first in his decade in power -- and President Dmitry Medvedev made clear they did not want to see a squabbling parliament like in the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin.
"If someone wants to watch a show, then they need to go to the circus, the movies or theatre," Putin told workers at a shipyard in Saint Petersburg, urging Russians to vote for his party.
Analysts say United Russia had initially hoped to repeat the success of the last parliamentary elections in 2007 when it secured a landslide majority of 64.3 percent and received 315 seats in the Duma.
But with support for Putin and his party crumbling, United Russia is expected to win just over half the vote, according to pollsters.
Independent observers and opposition parties expect authorities to skew polling results in favour of United Russia and say the only major intrigue would be the scale of falsifications to secure victory for Putin's party.
In the run-up to the vote, Russia's independent monitor group Golos (Voice) claimed rampant violations in the election campaign including pressure to vote for United Russia, incurring Putin's wrath.
Speaking last weekend, Putin lashed out at Western attempts to "influence the course of the election campaign" through Russian NGOs, warning this was "money thrown to the wind."
Following Putin's address, Golos has become the target of what its supporters say is an unprecedented campaign of intimidation, a treatment reserved for top Kremlin enemies.
On Friday, Golos was fined nearly $1,000 and became the subject of a prime time television programme that accused the "ostensibly independent observers" of acting in the interests of the US government.
Customs officials held Golos head Lilia Shibanova for 12 hours at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport and confiscated her laptop on Saturday.
The observers' "Map of violations" website documenting claims of campaign fraud became the target of a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack on Saturday.
The last polling stations will close at 1700 GMT Sunday in the exclave of Kaliningrad on the borders with the European Union.
© 2011 AFP