June 12, 1996 in Nation/World

Portable Election Boxes Ripe For Fraud, Yeltsin Camp Says

James P. Gallagher Chicago Tribune
 

Because he is a shut-in, Alexander Moiseyev won’t have to struggle to the polling place this Sunday for Russia’s presidential elections.

Moiseyev, 87, can sit at home and wait for someone from the local electoral commission to stop by and collect his ballot in a portable voting box.

It sounds like a good way to foster democracy. But it’s a formula for vote fraud that supporters of President Boris Yeltsin fear will be used in rural areas nationwide to pad the totals for Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist Party candidate.

Moiseyev is inclined, he said, to vote for the incumbent Yeltsin, especially after receiving a surprise gift from the government this week, a voucher for 1 million rubles (about $200) to compensate for the ravages of inflation on his bank account.

But who actually ends up getting Moiseyev’s backing won’t be clear until the team from the electoral commission shows up at his picturesque wooden house on Sunday.

“They ask me whom I am going to vote for, and if they don’t like my answer, then we have a discussion,” Moiseyev explained. “I ask them how the other people in the village are voting, and then I go along with the majority.

“On Sunday, if they tell me that most people here are voting for Zyuganov, then I’ll vote for Zyuganov, too.”

Re-enact that scene a million times or more and you have the biggest nightmare haunting the Yeltsin campaign as the presidential race roars through its final days with the president starting to edge ahead of Zyuganov.

In Sunday’s showdown, portable voting boxes will be Zyuganov’s secret weapon - just as they were last December, when they helped the Communist Party triumph in parliamentary elections.

While the turnout nationwide was about 65 percent, many of the country’s backward-looking “Red Regions” hit figures of 80 percent or better - with up to a third of the ballots in some locales filled out in voters’ homes while pro-Communist officials looked on, gave suggestions and sometimes made threats, according to election observers and diplomats.

By law, only people with serious health problems are supposed to avail themselves of portable voting boxes.

But in many rural zones, including the Lotoshino region northwest of Moscow where Moiseyev’s village of Ivanovskoye is located, electoral officials are more than willing to let healthy people vote at home - out of the glare of public scrutiny.

Worried that a blizzard of ballot fraud could make the difference Sunday in what appears to be a very tight contest, Yeltsin’s handlers are scrambling to cobble together a last-minute strategy for limiting the damage done by at-home voting.

But because the Yeltsin camp tarried so long in preparing to meet the cheating threat, only a few days are left to recruit and train the thousands of volunteers needed to accompany electoral officials on home visits.

“The whole idea is to frighten the local electoral commissions into being fair and impartial,” one Yeltsin campaign strategist said. “In most rural areas, commission members were first appointed in the Soviet days, so you can imagine where their sympathies lie.”

For its part, the Yeltsin campaign can be expected to do as much cheating as it can manage in the big cities where the president enjoys widespread support and the firm loyalty of municipal bosses. These include Moscow, St. Petersburg, Nizhny-Novgorod and Yekaterinburg.

Zyuganov and other ranking figures in his coalition of communists and ultra-nationalists have been complaining for weeks that the Yeltsin camp intends to steal the election if it can’t win it honestly. They have threatened to send their voters into the streets to challenge the government if they conclude the voting was rigged.

But Yeltsin proponents maintain - and independent analysts agree - that the Communists have the clear advantage when it comes to election fraud, mainly because of their tight-fisted control over the countryside.


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