Kremlin victory could pave way for Putin to try to retain control
They already sing his praises in heavy-metal and hip-hop songs; plaster his face on T-shirts; peddle his framed portrait from corner kiosks...
Los Angeles Times
MOSCOW -- They already sing his praises in heavy-metal and hip-hop songs; plaster his face on T-shirts; peddle his framed portrait from corner kiosks. On Sunday, Russians trooped to the polls to vote in a one-man popularity contest staged around the figure of their beloved president, Vladimir Putin.
Sunday's parliamentary election didn't start out as an approval poll for Putin. But the race for Duma seats became a sideshow when the president's many loyalists ordered the nation to treat the election as a "referendum on Putin."
Voters turned out in large numbers, with lines snaking around some polling stations.
With ballots from nearly 98 percent of precincts counted, United Russia was leading, as expected, with 64.1 percent, while the Communists trailed with 11.6 percent, the Central Election Commission said.
The surge of electoral participation, with turnout reportedly topping 60 percent, reflected Putin's aggressive campaign to turn out the vote.
"The president is trying to establish some kind of order in this country," said Yulia Mikhailova, 47, a Muscovite who went to the polls with the help of her cane. "He's a person who has turned Russia into a country to be reckoned with."
Furious opposition leaders called Sunday's election the least democratic vote since the collapse of the Soviet Union and vowed to challenge the results in court.
"This will beat all records in modern Russian history for irregularities," former chess champion and prominent opposition leader Garry Kasparov said.
Eleven parties were listed on the paper ballot presented to voters Sunday. Most listed the names of three top officers -- all except United Russia, which listed only a single name: Putin.
As the vote drew closer, Russian officials feuded bitterly with vote monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, blocking visas and imposing restrictions until the organization abruptly dropped plans to monitor the election.
Government employees, factory workers and soldiers were being heavily pressured to vote for United Russia, opposition parties charged.
In many polling stations, Russians were forced to vote in plain view of other voters, monitors and police. There were no curtains or doors to shield people from sight as they marked outsized ballots. Afterward, as the ballots were fed into electronic scanners, it was easy for bystanders to see which box was checked.
In a move dredged from the history books, Russia has constructed a neo-Soviet cult of personality around the increasingly strident figure of Putin. The weekend election got swept up in the kingmaking, analysts say, promising Putin a popular mandate to transition his rule of Russia into a new -- and as yet unclear -- era.
Strictly speaking, Putin, 55, should be in the twilight of his political career. He's a second-term president with no constitutional right to run for a third consecutive term. But with the Kremlin constantly reminding Russians that their destiny hinges on Putin's longevity, it seems clear that the president isn't about to slip quietly out of power.
Nobody knows, however, which job title Putin will take next; the president's designs on power are probably the most debated issue in Moscow. Popular guesses include prime minister (with a weak president who could be easily outshone by Putin); some sort of latter-day, czarist "national leader"; or ruling-party strongman in the mold of Josef Stalin.
Others predict that Putin will use the popular mandate provided by the landslide vote for his United Russia party to justify tampering with the constitution, making it possible to run for president again. Putin repeatedly has denied any plans to cling to the presidency and has vowed to safeguard the constitution.
But many Russians seem exhilarated at the possibility of a third Russian term and nonplused by the constitution.
"This constitution was written specifically to support Yeltsin, and many people refer to it as a bloody constitution," said Alexander Prokhanov, a nationalist-leaning writer who has called upon Putin to serve a third term in office. "None of the Russian people will go and die for this Yeltsin constitution if it's violated or abandoned."
From a distance, Putin's popularity might seem baffling. But among his people, analysts say, he's struck all the right chords: After the empty supermarkets, political blood feuds and bank collapses of the 1990s, he's given Russians a sense of stability. Leaving behind the shame of the failed Soviet Union and Boris Yeltsin's drunken antics, he's made it clear that Russia once again is a strong, powerful nation: free from debt, rich in oil and not beholden to the international community.
Under Putin, Russia has raised pensions, made highly publicized swipes against corruption and, thanks to a global oil boom, presided over an era of unprecedented Russian wealth.
"Russia has always been a country that supports personified power," said Lilia Shevtsova, senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "Can you imagine? People do support the president, but they think his government is a piece of junk. They put Putin above the corruption."
As they pulled their fur caps over their ears and headed back out into the snow, many voters seemed utterly oblivious that they were voting for parliament. For better or worse, it was Putin who lingered in their thoughts.
"We want Putin to win very, very much," said 75-year-old Maria Ravinskaya, blue eyes sparkling over her fur collar. "We hope Putin will take us to a higher level of life."
Pro-Kremlin youth groups shout his name in the streets and sic themselves on his enemies. There's also Behind Putin, a headline-grabbing group that suddenly coalesced last month to beg the president not to abandon his people.
It commandeered a sports stadium and threw a combination political rally and rock concert with the sole purpose of praising, as the massive banners proclaimed, "the glory of Putin." The president himself graciously agreed to appear as keynote speaker.
Teenagers milled around, jostled for a better view and snapped photographs. Putin's face was emblazoned on their T-shirts and the pins that held their red scarves.
A rock song boomed: "Out in the open fields is the Grad system," the refrain ran, referring to a Soviet multiple launch rocket system. "Putin is behind us, and Stalingrad." The teenagers bopped up and down in time.
"Russia should be a democratic country. But what does that mean, 'democracy?' " asked the announcer. "This is 100 percent democracy."
Updated results provided by The Associated Press.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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