Putin scores big poll win, opposition cries foul
Moscow, December 3, 2007
President Vladimir Putin's party won a big majority in Russia's election, but the opposition alleged fraud and vowed to contest a result that could help Putin keep a hold on power after he leaves office.
In the first foreign reaction, the White House urged Russia to investigate opposition claims of widespread ballot-rigging in the vote which, according to incomplete official results, handed Putin's United Russia party more than 60 per cent of the vote.
The Kremlin hailed the result as a signal from Russian voters that they want Putin -- required by the constitution to step down when his second term ends next year -- to retain influence even after he leaves office.
'The overwhelming majority of Russian voters spoke in favour of United Russia, thus supporting President Putin's course, and spoke in favour of it being continued after the current president's second term ends,' a Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said.
But the Communists, likely to be the only opposition force in parliament, said they would challenge the result in the Supreme Court. Liberal Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov of the SPS party called it 'the most dishonest election in the history of modern Russia.'
With 47.2 per cent of votes counted, United Russia had 63.2 per cent of the vote and the Communists 11.5 per cent. Only two other parties -- which both back the Kremlin -- cleared the 7-per cent hurdle to qualify for seats in parliament.
The 55-year-old former KGB spy, who is hugely popular and credited by voters with restoring Russia's national pride, has been tipped for a role as prime minister or possibly speaker of parliament after his presidency.
Some observers say he could seek a third term as president, though he has said repeatedly he would not change the constitution to pave the way for this.
Allegations of ballot fraud are unlikely to strike a chord with the majority of voters who, opinion polls show, respect Putin and want him to stay on as a 'national leader.' The opposition parties most critical of Putin have marginal support.
'I voted for United Russia because I believe that Putin can help us, simple working folk,' said Sergei Ilin, 34, an unemployed man in the Siberian village of Belovsky.
But the allegations could drive a new wedge between an increasingly assertive Moscow and Western governments which Putin accused last week of 'poking their snotty noses' in Russia's affairs.
White House National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe noted the allegations of violations and said: 'We urge Russian authorities to investigate these claims.'
Several foreign governments had already voiced concern after Europe's main ODIHR election watchdog -- seen in the West as a key yardstick of the fairness of an election -- pulled out of the vote citing obstruction by the Russian authorities.
The head of the Central Election Commission, Vladimir Churov, a former colleague of Putin who was appointed election chief this year, dismissed allegations of fraud.
'I think there were no serious violations on polling day. At least during the voting not one party leader called me and no-one complained (to me),' Churov said.
Chris Weafer, chief strategist at Uralsib investment bank in Moscow, said the results were 'not spectacular but good enough to allow President Putin to call the shots after (the presidential election in) March.'
'He now has the initiative in terms of what role he wants to stay on in', said Weafer. United Russia fell short of Putin's personal vote of 71.3 percent in the 2004 presidential election.
United Russia's strong result was widely forecast. Russians credit Putin with overseeing an oil-fuelled economic boom and like his no-nonsense approach, even while many in the West see it as squashing democratic freedoms.
But independent election monitors and opposition parties said officials mounted a nationwide campai