Russians cast their ballots with muted enthusiasm in national parliament elections yesterday, a vote that opinion polls indicate could water down the strength of the country’s dominant party.
In the far eastern regions along the Pacific Coast where voting began, initial turnout appeared desultory. In the Kamchatka and Sakhalin regions, turnout was just 45 to 48 percent.
“It’s very important to come to the polling stations and vote, but many say that it’s useless,” said Artysh Munzuk, a university student casting his ballot in the Pacific port of Vladivostok.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party has signaled concern about polls showing it could receive only a bit more than half the votes. It has cracked down on an independent election monitor and warned of political instability.
Only seven parties have been allowed to field candidates for parliament this year, while the most vocal opposition groups have been denied registration and barred from campaigning. Critics say the 7 percent threshold for winning seats is prohibitively high, effectively shutting out most minority views.
Still, the independent Levada Center polling agency released a survey late last month saying United Russia could get only about 53 percent of the vote, well down from its performance in 2007 that gave it an unassailable two-thirds majority in the State Duma, the elected lower house of parliament.
Putin and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made final appeals for the party on Friday, the last day of campaigning, warning that a parliament made up of diverse political camps would be incapable of making decisions.
The view underlines the authorities’ continuing discomfort with political pluralism and preference for top-down operation. As president from 2000 to 2008, Putin’s autocratic leadership style won wide support among Russians exhausted by a decade of post-Soviet uncertainty.
However, United Russia has become increasingly disliked, seen as stifling opposition, representing a corrupt bureaucracy and often called “the party of crooks and thieves.” Putin needs the party to do well in the parliamentary election to pave the way for his return to the presidency in a vote now three months away.
With so much at stake, there are doubts about how honestly the election will be conducted. An interim report from an elections-monitoring mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said “most parties have expressed a lack of trust in the fairness of the electoral process.”
The Web sites of Ekho Moskvy, a prominent, independent-minded radio station, and Golos, the country’s only independent election-monitoring group, were down yesterday. Both claimed the failures were due to denial-of-service (DDoS) hacker attacks.
“The attack on the site on election day is obviously connected to attempts to interfere with publication of information about violations,” Ekho Moskvy editor Alexey Venediktov said in a Twitter post.
Golos’ leader, Lilya Shibanova, said on Saturday that the authorities seemed especially angry at their Map of Violations project, where people could upload any information or evidence of election fraud.
Its entire operation appeared to be under siege yesterday, with spokeswoman Olga Novosad said: “Our e-mail is not working, and we only have Skype to communicate with our regional network.”