Thousands of Russians took to the streets here Monday to voice their anger at polling irregularities they fear will allow the ruling party to maintain control of parliament’s lower house, despite a relatively weak showing in elections Sunday.
Accusations of ballot stuffing and voter fraud were voiced by the demonstrators as well as international observers, on a day when election officials said preliminary results could give the United Russia party of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev 238 seats in the 450-seat State Duma, with over 49% of the vote. In 2007, the party won 64% of the vote.
“A thief breaks in our home and tells us to go on watching television while he is robbing us out of our possessions!” said liberal blogger Alexei Navalny, addressing a crowd of mostly young people who came out despite drizzling skies.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Monday in Bonn, Germany, where she was attending a conference on Afghanistan, that “Russian voters deserve a full investigation of all credible reports of electoral fraud and manipulation.”
Medvedev, at a meeting of supporters, said the election was fair.
“The United Russia got exactly what it has, not less, not more, and in this sense it was an absolutely honest and fair democratic election,” he said. “All this talk about the boundless use of administrative resource…. Where is this resource?”
The Communist Party was trailing in the preliminary results with over 19%, followed by Just Russia, a splinter wing of the ruling party that rebelled against the Kremlin, with over 13% and the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party with over 11%. The other three parties on the ballot, including the liberal Yabloko, will not receive parliament seats because they didn’t pass the 7% threshold.
Accusations of ballot fraud by United Russia, which controls an absolute majority of regional and local administrations, mounted even before voting ended Sunday.
Programmer Vasily Dovedov, a Communist Party election observer, said at the protest that he “personally caught by the hand a man at polling station 2829 [in a northwest Moscow suburb] in the act of stuffing into a ballot box more than a dozen ballot papers all marked in favor of United Russia.”
Fellow election observer Alexandra Richard said that another polling station had issued 1,124 ballot papers, but that 1,505 ballots were in the boxes when the votes were counted.
“How can United Russia get 46% in Moscow when the exit polls wouldn’t give them more than 22%?” added the 21-year-old law student. “It is clear that they cheated, and we have proof of that.”
“Putin out! Putin out!” protesters chanted Monday night. “We want new elections!”
One organizer suggested going down along Lubyanka Street toward the Central Election Commission. When thousands began heading in that direction, riot police blocked their way.
“They outnumber us!” a red-faced police colonel screamed into his radio. “Get us some help fast!”
The help arrived within minutes, and protesters were pushed away from the street. Scores were arrested and thrown into police vans. “Shame! Shame!” others screamed.
“I don’t sympathize with liberals, but I came here to join this protest because I don’t want my country to be destabilized by such a cynical and arrogant disregard of the people’s will,” said Rakhim Safiullin, a 33-year-old IT company manager, after he pushed away a riot police officer. “All this will result in such civic discontent that may break up the country!”