March 1, 2008 in Nation/World

Putin pushing Russians for big turnout at polls

Megan K. Stack Los Angeles Times
 

MOSCOW – Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has picked out his successor, adorned him in the political gold of his endorsements and papered the media with his name.

Now he wants to persuade voters to cast ballots in this weekend’s presidential election, despite the fact that the victor is a foregone conclusion. The Kremlin is anxious to draw enough voters to show that the anticipated election of Dmitri Medvedev reflects the will of the people.

Putin’s televised image flickered before the public on Friday, as the outgoing president appealed for voter turnout. Russian candidates will observe the “day of silence” today, clearing the airwaves of candidates and endorsements ahead of Sunday’s vote.

“We all understand what a great and responsible role the leader of a state such as Russia has,” Putin said. “And how important it is for him to have the faith of his citizens … I appeal to you to go to the election on Sunday and vote for your future, for Russia’s future.”

Putin didn’t bother to endorse, yet again, his longtime associate, Medvedev. There was no need. The former president appears at the side, and slightly ahead of, Medvedev in campaign posters all over Moscow. “Together, we will win,” the slogan reads.

It’s hard to find a soul in Russia who claims there is any suspense still hanging over the election. Medvedev’s ascendance has been systematically bolstered by Putin’s popularity, and a vast Kremlin machine of public relations and political obedience.

Still, as the election draws near, Putin and Medvedev are counting on voter turnout to put a democratic sheen on a predetermined succession, analysts say.

“The main concern of the government is to have sufficient turnout so that these elections look legitimate,” said Leonid Sedov, a senior researcher at the Levada Polling Center. “It’s a sign of legitimacy, the number of voters. Otherwise people everywhere, in the West and in our country, will say the votes were not numerous enough to support the winner.”

Civil society groups and election monitors vociferously condemned the election run-up this week, arguing that images of Medvedev so dominated state-run media that it hardly qualified as a campaign at all.

“Actually, that was the main problem: There was no campaign,” said Viktor Vakhshtain of the election monitoring group “Golos,” or Vote. “It looked like there were two candidates. It looked like President Putin was also running in the campaign. He appeared with Medvedev, he commented on Medvedev and Medvedev commented on Putin.”

Technically, Medvedev is battling against three other candidates for the presidency: Vladimir Zhirinovsky, an outspoken, outlandish nationalist; Gennady Zyuganov, a leader of the Communist Party; and Andrei Bogdanov, a representative of a liberal party widely suspected of being a Kremlin creation. None of them is thought to stand a chance.

Candidates who would likely have capitalized on the campaign to criticize or embarrass the Kremlin were barred from entering the race, critics said.

Medvedev seemed destined for victory from the moment Putin gave him the coveted endorsement, observers said.

In the past month, for example, Bogdanov’s name was mentioned 450 times in newspapers, radio or television, monitors at Golos calculated. During the same period, Medvedev was named 4,700 times.

“Russian TV news went almost totally Soviet in this campaign period. Ninety-six percent of it was pro-Medvedev propaganda,” said Oleg Panfilov, director of Moscow’s Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations.

“We live in a country where the president is de facto appointed by the previous president and not democratically elected by the people, despite lame attempts to preserve some semblance of due procedure,” he said.

As the campaign ran its course, schoolchildren were instructed to remind their parents to vote, and advertisements cropped up everywhere from subway cards to cell phone text messages. Workers in state bureaucracies came under particular pressure to participate, monitors said.

Some of the cases of coercion went so far they became absurd. Monitors found that one provincial maternity clinic was cautioning women against coming in for childbirth on Sunday without first picking up an absentee ballot, one woman said.


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