MOSCOW: Large numbers of Russians voted on Sunday in a presidential election slammed by foreign and domestic critics as rigged in favour of Vladimir Putin’s chosen successor, Dmitry Medvedev.
Medvedev’s victory was a foregone conclusion following a campaign where Russia’s heavily censored television networks rammed home the message that he is heir to Putin, who is expected to become prime minister to keep a key role in the world’s leading energy exporter.
Opinion polls predicted 42-year-old Medvedev, currently first deputy premier and head of gas monopoly Gazprom, would win at least 60 per cent of the vote.
None of the other candidates - Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, populist nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and the almost unknown Andrei Bogdanov - presented a serious challenge.
“You know very well that it’s all sorted out in advance. It’s automatic,” said Anna Vasiliyevna, 50, as she cast her ballot in central Moscow. The biggest challenge for the authorities was to overcome widespread apathy following a campaign in which Medvedev refused to debate and the streets were bare of posters.
Exactly half-way through voting, the central elections commission reported no less than 48 per cent participation among the 109 million eligible voters.
According to critics, the high figure reflected the authorities’ use of fraud and coercion to avoid an embarrassingly low turnout.
“There can’t be a small turnout when people are forced to go to the polls,” said Grigory Melkonyan, deputy director of Golos, Russia’s leading independent election monitoring organisation.
Medvedev represents a new generation of post-Soviet politicians and unlike Putin, 55, he has no KGB or other security service background.
But analysts say that Medvedev will make few changes to current policy and could end up being little more than a puppet manipulated by his mentor Putin.
Putin, who is stepping down after his second four-year term, indicated clearly last month that he expects to wield significant influence and that the “highest executive power” lies with the prime minister’s office.
The authorities dismiss foreign criticism as meddling in Russian politics.
Many Russians are also grateful for stability following the trauma of economic upheaval and instability in the post-Soviet 1990s under Boris Yeltsin.
Vladivostok voter Gennady Dultsev complained that “everything is being decided in a Soviet way.” However, Medvedev as president was “not the worst possible outcome,” the telecoms engineer said. But chess great turned Kremlin critic Garry Kasparov said on Sunday “Russian citizens are being forced to take part in a farce.”
The election came under attack from democracy watchdogs who accused the Kremlin of stage-managing the contest through media bias, pressure on regional leaders, and use of state resources. The main European election monitoring body, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), boycotted the vote, citing restrictions on its monitors.
US Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama last week also criticised the election as a fix to keep Putin in power. One of the most controversial aspects of the election was the authorities’ attempt to increase voter turnout.
This involved extraordinary efforts, including snowmobile trips to reach reindeer herders in the Arctic. Cosmonaut Yury Malenchenko was able to transmit his vote from the orbiting International Space Station.
But Golos and others alleged that loyalist bosses were also forcing employees to cast ballots. “We have had dozens of calls from various regions telling us how the heads of factories and institutes are ensuring this,” Golos’ Melkonyan said.
The Communist Party, which has deployed large numbers of observers, said workers at two factories in the Vladivostok area were told to vote or face dismissal or wage cuts.
There were also signs of a repeat in the troubled Caucasus region of the eyebrow-raising turnouts reported in December parliamentary elections. In Ingushetia, which had a 98 per cent turnout in December, local leader Murat Zyazikov told Inter fax he once again expected “massive” participation.
A similar performance was expected from neighbouring Chechnya, which claimed more than 99 per cent turnout last year, said leader Ramzan Kadyrov. “I believe that nearly every single resident of Chechnya will go out and vote,” he said.