Monitors decry Russian vote as undemocratic
European officials and vote monitors Monday denounced Russia’s parliamentary elections as an undemocratic exercise engineered by President Vladimir V. Putin and his party.
“Neither a free, fair nor democratic election,” said a German government spokesman.
“Steered democracy,” said the Swedish foreign minister.
“Not a level playing field,” added the European observer mission.
With Putin’s second presidential term drawing to a close and political uncertainty shadowing the country’s future, Russians trooped to the polls Sunday to elect the lower house of parliament in balloting widely regarded as a plebiscite on the president’s ability to run the country. After an intense and often surreal campaign that featured Putin as its star and almost sole player, voters delivered a landslide victory to his United Russia party.
Putin, a 55-year-old former KGB agent, appeared unruffled by the criticism. During his regular Monday meeting with Cabinet ministers, he called upon parliament to assemble quickly for its first session, rather than wait the usual 30 days after an election.
The victory was “a sign of trust,” Putin said. “Russians will never allow the nation to take a destructive path, as happened in some other ex-Soviet nations.”
With 98% of the ballots tallied, United Russia was poised to capture more than 64% of the vote. The results gave Putin’s party 315 seats in the 450-seat lower house, more than the two-thirds needed to amend the constitution without the support of other parties.
Much of the criticism from the West focused not on events at the polls, but on the carnival-like campaign engineered by the Kremlin. European election monitors pointed out that Putin had personalized the parliamentary elections by putting his name at the top of the United Russia ticket, involving himself to a degree they considered inappropriate for a sitting president.
Heavily state-controlled media cheered on Putin’s party, government resources were abused and opposition parties were harassed, the monitors said.
“If Russia is a managed democracy, these were managed elections,” Luc van den Brande, head of the Council of Europe delegation, told reporters in Moscow. “For us, it is an unprecedented situation that a sitting president is running in an election.”
Russia dismissed the complaints as unfair barbs hurled by Western foes.
“It is a political order,” Central Election Commission member Igor Borisov said of the critics, according to the Interfax news agency. “A political expediency dictated from overseas prevailed over the principles of objective monitoring which must be carried out by international observers.”
Speaking with reporters, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov suggested that the foreign observers had been misled by the propaganda of embittered opposition groups.
“We treat this kind of sharp criticism as criticism based, let’s say, on information that’s one-sided, that has no proof,” Peskov said. It is not unusual for presidents to get involved in parliamentary elections, he said.
Analysts shrugged their shoulders at what they depicted as a typical war of words in the increasingly belligerent relations between Russia and the West.
“The elections have nothing to do with democracy, but this was clear and blunt a year ago,” said Stanislav Belkovsky, president of the National Strategy Institute, a Moscow think tank. “I don’t know why the Europeans were so surprised.”
In the restive northern Caucasus, voter turnout reached nearly 100%, and about 90% of the votes went to Putin’s party, according to official results. In Chechnya, election officials announced a 99.5% turnout and said more than 99% of those voters cast their ballots for Putin’s party.
Asked by a reporter whether he believed those numbers were correct, Peskov grasped for an answer.
“Well, it’s a very interesting result. I don’t think I have a right either to believe or not believe,” he said.
“At least, I don’t have a right to speak about that. But I know for sure these are official results and I don’t have a reason to distrust them.”
With the vote settled and Putin pushing forward with a new sense of popular mandate, attention turned to the mystery of how the Kremlin will reapportion power when Putin’s last term reaches an end next year. Many observers believe Putin will find a way to hold on to power.
On Monday, Putin said he thought the presidential and parliamentary elections were scheduled too tightly together, and suggested that the voting be held further apart lest voters become weary.
Kremlin officials were quick to explain that Putin was referring to future balloting and was not hinting at delaying the presidential election set for March.