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Russia Votes in Election Without Opp.  09/16 06:15

   

   MOSCOW (AP) -- After a few weeks of desultory campaigning but months of 
relentless official moves to shut down significant opposition, Russia is 
holding three days of voting this weekend in a parliamentary election that is 
unlikely to change the country's political complexion.

   There's no expectation that United Russia, the party devoted to President 
Vladimir Putin, will lose its dominance of the State Duma, the elected lower 
house of parliament. The main questions to be answered are whether the party 
will retain its current two-thirds majority that allows it to amend the 
constitution; whether anemic turnout will dull the party's prestige; and 
whether imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny's Smart Voting initiative 
proves to be a viable strategy against it.

   "There is very little intrigue in these elections ... and in fact they will 
not leave a special trace in political history," Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst 
at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told The Associated Press.

   Putin, however, on Thursday urged Russians to vote, saying in a video 
message that "election of (the Duma's) new composition is undoubtedly the most 
important event in the life of our society and country."

   With 14 parties fielding candidates for half of the Duma's 450 seats that 
are chosen by party list, the election has a veneer of being genuinely 
competitive. But the three parties aside from United Russia that are expected 
to clear the 5% support necessary to get a seat rarely challenge the Kremlin.

   The Kremlin wants control over the new parliament, which will still be in 
place in 2024, when Putin's current term expires and he must decide on running 
for reelection or choosing some other strategy to stay in power.

   The other half of the seats are chosen in individual constituencies, where 
independent candidates or those from small parties such as the liberal Yabloko 
may have stronger chances. These seats are also where the Navalny team's Smart 
Voting strategy could make inroads.

   The program sidesteps ideology in order to undermine United Russia, simply 
advising voters which candidate other than the ruling party's is the strongest 
in a single-mandate race.

   It's essentially a defensive strategy.

   "Voting to harm United Russia is not a meaningful goal, not a goal to choose 
another candidate whom you ideologically support," Kolesnikov said. But it 
showed potency in its inaugural use in 2018 when opposition candidates won 20 
of 45 seats in the Moscow city council, and a year later when United Russia 
lost its majorities in the councils of three large cities.

   However, it's unclear how widely it will be used this year after authorities 
blocked access to its website. The service remains available through apps, but 
Russia has threatened fines against Apple and Google to remove the apps from 
their online stores. The Foreign Ministry last week summoned U.S. Ambassador 
John Sullivan to protest election interference by American "digital giants."

   Blocking the website was the latest move to neutralize the Navalny 
operation, which was Russia's most visible and determined opposition 
organization, capable of calling sizable protests throughout the country.

   Navalny himself was jailed in January upon returning to Russia from Germany 
where he had been recuperating from nerve-agent poisoning; he was subsequently 
sentenced to 2 years in prison. A court later outlawed Navalny's Foundation 
for Fighting Corruption and a network of his regional offices as extremist 
organizations, a verdict that barred people associated with the groups from 
seeking public office and exposed them to lengthy prison terms.

   Russian authorities also blocked some 50 websites run by his team or 
supporters for allegedly disseminating extremist propaganda.

   In August, Russia added the independent vote-monitoring group Golos to its 
list of foreign agents, a move that does not block its work but strongly 
suggests it should be regarded with suspicion.

   The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, whose 
election-monitoring missions are widely regarded as authoritative, will not 
send observers for the parliament vote, saying that Russia imposed excessive 
restrictions.

   In addition to the Duma election, nine Russian regions will be choosing 
governors, 39 regions will be choosing legislatures and voters in 11 cities 
will be choosing city councils.

   The Elections Commission ordered voting expanded to three days, concluding 
on Sunday, to reduce crowding at the polls amid the coronavirus pandemic. 
Critics say the decision raises the chance of ballot manipulation. Commission 
head Ella Pamfilova rejects the accusation, saying there will be "total video 
surveillance" of polling places and that ballots will be in secure containers.

   Other ethical concerns also hover over the election. According to the 
state-funded pollster VTsIOM, more than one in 10 workers say they have been 
given directives by their bosses to vote. In St. Petersburg, a candidate from 
the Yabloko party named Boris Vishnevsky, who is running simultaneously for the 
Duma and a regional legislature, discovered that there are two other men using 
that name opposing him in each race -- one of whom is a member of United 
Russia, according to the newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

   Although polls indicate that general approval for United Russia is low, the 
party is expected to ride to an overwhelming first place in the new parliament. 
The independent Center for Current Politics predicts it will score 299-306 
seats -- down from the 343 it currently holds but within the range of the 303 
seats needed to change the constitution.

   The center's prognosis suggests that most of the seats lost by United Russia 
would be picked up by the Communist Party, the second-largest parliamentary 
faction. But the party largely conforms to the Kremlin line, as do the two 
other parties likely to get double-digit seats.

   "The Communists themselves are not very dangerous," said commentator Sergei 
Parkhomenko on Ekho Moskvy radio. The party is "a tool for imitating an 
opposition movement."

   Allegations of widespread voting fraud sparked large protests in Moscow and 
St. Petersburg after the 2011 Duma elections. But with opposition groups 
neutered, the prospect of unrest this time appears remote.

   "Protests will not take place where we expect them, not at the time when we 
expect them and not from those from whom we expect them," Parkhomenko said.

 
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