Russians will vote this weekend in the first major elections since disputed polls in October triggered calls from President Dmitry Medvedev for smaller parties to receive better representation in regional legislatures dominated by United Russia.
But despite Medvedev's rhetoric, regional authorities have continued to back the ruling United Russia party and derail the campaigns of other parties ahead of Sunday's elections, opposition activists and election monitors said.
Voters will elect eight regional legislatures and 12 municipal legislatures on Sunday. About 84,000 candidates are running for about 40,000 open seats, according to the Central Election Commission.
The elections will be the last to use early voting, criticized by election observers as one of the most blatant ploys to manipulate election results, and regional authorities are once again taking advantage of early voting to collect votes for United Russia, said Grigory Melkonyants, deputy director of Golos, Russia's only independent election monitoring organization.
“The most important thing for officials is to get the necessary results,” Melkonyants said. "They will only think about what will happen next tomorrow."
Medvedev lashed out against the election-time use of “stupid administrative methods” during a session of his State Council dedicated to the issue in January. He also urged regional governors to respect the public's will and not interfere in the voting process.
In February, Medvedev sent a bill on electoral reform to the State Duma that, among other things, abolishes early voting. The amendments, which will go into effect in time for the next major elections in the fall, will restrict early voting to people who live or work in hard-to-access places. Currently, anyone can vote early by declaring that it will be impossible to vote on election day, and election observers often cannot observe how this voting takes place.
Melkonyants said early voting for the municipal legislature in Sochi, which will host the 2014 Winter Olympics, is of particular concern.
Several members of the local election committee have complained to Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in a YouTube video that local officials are forcing people to vote early.
“We are urging you to cancel the results of early voting in Sochi because of multiple violations,” committee member Yelena Zakaryan said in the video, which is also posted on the Golos web site. The video footage shows Zakaryan standing with a group of election committee members and candidates.
Zakaryan said municipal officials were delivering voters by the busload to polling stations and forcing them to vote for certain candidates. Zakaryan does not identify the party affiliation of the candidates.
But Yevgeny Raschepkin, the Communist Party's election coordinator for the Krasnodar region, which includes Sochi, said the votes were being cast for United Russia.
“These buses have become the de facto election headquarters for United Russia,” Raschepkin told The Moscow Times by telephone from Sochi.
He said Communist observers had tried to ask the early voters why they had decided to show up early and only sparked anger from the officials bringing the groups to the ballot boxes.
Raschepkin suggested that the people were being forced to vote at risk of losing their jobs.
“People depend on their bosses,” he said.
Senior Sochi election officials denied wrongdoing. United Russia also denied wrongdoing in the elections.
But opposition parties said regional officials have erected multiple barriers to prevent them for participating in the elections.
Despite Medvedev’s appeal for smaller parties to participate, running in local elections has become even harder, said Vladislav Morozov, head of the Yabloko opposition party's branch in the Kaluga region, located 160 kilometers southwest of Moscow.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court banned the party from running for seats in the regional legislature, citing problems with signatures the party collected to be registered for the vote. Yabloko leader Sergei Mitrokhin said the violations were minor, Noviye Izvestia reported Wednesday.
Morozov is currently one of three Yabloko deputies in the regional legislature, which like most in Russia is dominated by United Russia.
Morozov complained that Kaluga Governor Anatoly Artamonov, a member of United Russia is actively campaigning for United Russia candidates and almost daily appears on local television to endorse party candidates.
“That reminds me of the times of Brezhnev,” he said, referring to Soviet elections when the Communists had a one-party monopoly.
Also this week, the Central Election Commission banned Just Russia election posters in which party leader Sergei Mironov urges people voting for the Sverdlovsk regional legislature to fight against the use of administrative resources — a nod to the regional authorities' vocal support for United Russia. The ban was imposed on the grounds that the poster mentions that Mironov is also the speaker of the Federation Council, which amounts to abuse of authority, Vedomosti reported.
United Russia often uses campaign posters featuring Putin, who heads the party, and Medvedev, but it faces no problems because it does not mention which positions the two men hold.
After the last major elections, held on Oct. 11, deputies with the Communist, Just Russia and Liberal Democratic parties stormed out of the State Duma in protest of fraud. They refused to return until Medvedev agreed to listen to their complaints. United Russia swept the elections.
Medvedev defended the elections, telling the party leaders at the time that the political system was functioning well and that their parties had failed to present evidence of violations in court.