Russia's Putin Helps Party to Landslide Victory
Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, helped his party to a landslide victory in parliamentary elections yesterday, but opposition groups there say fraud was widespread. They accuse the authorities of rigging the vote to let Putin hold on the power after his presidential term ends next year.
NPR's Gregory Feifer reports from Moscow.
GREGORY FEIFER: It was just what the Kremlin had hoped for, a relatively high turnout of about 60 percent of voters braved snow and temperature's well below freezing, to give the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party an almost two-thirds majority.
(Soundbite of crowd)
FEIFER: At a voting station in a central Moscow school, local resident Elvira Kryuchkova says she voted for United Russia.
Ms. ELVIRA KRYUCHKOVA: (Through translator) What Putin has done for us is clear. Children are going to school. The elderly are getting their pensions. People are being paid. Life is nothing like it was before, when we waited in long lines and store shelves were empty.
FEIFER: High oil prices have made Russia's once-bankrupt government and a handful of Russians very, very rich. But most people have been left behind. Retired aerospace engineer Maya Filin says she's barely getting by.
Ms. MAYA FILIN (Retired Aerospace Engineer): (Through translator) Medicine is very expensive. I can't even afford to pay for a doctor's visit. I only survive because I have a plot of land outside Moscow where I can raise vegetables.
FEIFER: Still, Filin says she voted for United Russia because Putin is its top candidate. The president's term limit runs out next year, but his supporters say his popularity gives him the moral right to hold on to power as the country's national leader. And Putin has indicated a major victory by United Russia could prompt him to do that by becoming prime minister.
(Soundbite of people talking)
FEIFER: When the elections first vote counts were announced in the United Russia election headquarters Sunday night, there was no reaction from party members, as if the results had been expected. Later, party leader Boris Gryzlov said the vote was a successful referendum on Putin's eight years in office.
Mr. BORIS GRYZLOV (Party Leader, United Russia Party): (Speaking in Russian)
FEIFER: The figures are amazing, he said. We can now say Vladimir Putin is our national leader, that he's won the first round of voting in the presidential elections.
But opposition groups say they've documented systematic electoral fraud, including ballot stuffing and testimony the authorities forced state employees to vote for United Russia.
Opposition leader and former chess champion Garry Kasparov accuses the authorities of not only rigging, but also raping the democratic system.
Mr. GARRY KASPAROV (Opposition Leader; Former Chess Champion): People are telling horrible stories about the pressure from officials. Even in the hospitals, the patients told that they would not be given medicine unless they vote for United Russia.
FEIFER: Preliminary elections results give Putin's United Russia Party more than 60 percent of the vote. Lagging far behind is the Communist Party, with about 11 percent. The communists will be the only opposition force in parliament. The other two parties that look set to qualify are also pro-Kremlin.
The liberal Union of Right Forces Party, which didn't qualify for seats, says it will contest the results in court. The party's top candidate, Boris Nemtsov, says the elections indicate the return of a one-party dictatorship to Russia.
Mr. BORIS NEMTSOV (Candidate, Union of Right Forces Party): (Through translator) The authorities know that if they lose power, they'll end up in jail, because they'll have to answer for their thieving and lying. They are cynical, unprincipled people. And they want to destroy us because we speak the truth.
FEIFER: Washington has called on the Russian authorities to investigate allegations of vote fraud. But the elections commission's chief has already said there were no serious violations. Whatever Putin decides to do in the coming months, all eyes are now on him, and if and how he decides to hold on to power. United Russia's sweeping victory in yesterday's vote means he alone remains in complete control of Russian politics.
Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.