|The popularity of United Russia, the country's ruling party, is waning, according to polling data [EPA]
As Russians head to the polls on December 4, the ruling United Russia party faces the prospect of losing control of the State Duma, the lower house of parliament. Polls suggest only about 40 per cent of voters are ready to cast their ballots for the party of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. And that means, it stands to lose its two-thirds majority and its dominance of Russia's political life.
This grim prospect has made the party in power so worried that, it has resorted to what critics say is a full-blown campaign of dirty political tricks at the very least, and illegal actions at the most.
Election sex appeal
Consider this steamy online campaign ad from United Russia. Designed to win the support of younger voters, it is not ashamed to use crass sex appeal. Titled with the double entendre, "Let's Do It Together", the video shows a foxy brunette entering a polling station, where a young man attempts to flirt with her. After he holds open the curtain to the voting booth for her, she gets in alone, but seconds later, pulls him inside. The two then emerge looking dishevelled, but satisfied, and cast their ballots together. The message seems to be: Vote for Putin's party and this could be you.
The video has spurred controversy and angry condemnations of its portrayal of election procedure. Voting is supposed to be secret, critics say, with no sex in democracy's most sacred room. Gennady Gudkov, a member of parliament from the opposition party "A Just Russia", has even demanded an investigation for a possible violation of Russian law. "Our elections", he blasted the campaign in a recent fiery speech in parliament, "is a mix of the abuse of government resources and preparations for vote rigging that are now in full swing".
|Putin portrays himself as a vigorous, manly leader [EPA]
Putin himself, of course, has never shied away from using his sex appeal to promote himself as a strong leader. The public has seen him half-naked riding a horse, flying a firefighter plane, scuba diving for archeological treasures, riding a Harley Davidson and even shooting a tiger with a tranquiliser gun. Saviour Putin has made it everywhere, like an omnipresent Russky Superman taking care of Russia's problems.
The posters scandal
But campaign tricks to ensure United Russia's success have gone beyond the raunchy, but admittedly benign online ads. In a seemingly sinister attempt at subliminal advertising, the ruling party has been plastering Moscow in posters that are nearly identical
to the ones used by city officials to encourage people to vote. Both types of billboards feature dark-blue silhouettes of a family with two kids, an elder couple, and new parents with a baby pram against a light blue silhouette of a city skyline.
What is different is just two things. First, the slogans on the official billboards say "Vote for Russia! Vote for yourself!", while those of United Russia declare "We Preserve - for Life, for People!" The second difference is the left-hand corner where official posters show the election date, superimposed on the Russian white-red-and-blue flag, while the United Russia posters show the party logo - a bear underneath the Russian tricolour.
Observers and the opposition say the government has crossed a legal line, by linking the act of voting with supporting United Russia. But party officials deny violating any rules. And Moscow city election authorities are only willing to admit possible copyright infringement.
But Grigoriy Melkonyants, an expert with Golos, a US-funded elections watchdog, says the posters violate the principles of equality of all parties in an election. "Voters will inevitably associate elections with voting for United Russia and that is in no way an honest mistake."
Another Golos expert, Andrei Buzin, goes even further to explain the discomforting phenomenon. The city of Moscow, he says, has awarded its "get out and vote" poster contract to a favoured firm. And that same company is also in charge of advertising materials for United Russia. But Buzin says, despite apparent violations, Russians have no recourse to make such complaints. "The courts are not independent. And without independent courts, we cannot get very far."
The opposition, too, has been crying foul over what it says is an example of indirect campaigning by a state agency for a specific political party. "These inappropriate practices," says the head of A Just Russia's election headquarters, Oleg Mikheyev, "is a way to programme people to vote for United Russia".
Banning election ads
A Just Russia and several other opposition parties say they have also fallen victim to discrimination by state election officials. The Central Election Commission has banned several campaign videos accusing them of spreading "extremist" views or violating campaign laws. This one, for example, from A Just Russia shows an elderly woman collecting her pension. She smiles at first after seeing a raise. But her joy quickly disappears once she realises the utilities bill she has to pay has also gone up. The official who has just given her pension takes it all back, forcing the banknotes out of the pensioner's hands. The final shot shows a close-up of her bewildered eyes brimming with tears.
A Just Russia says the ad aims to raise awareness about the plight of millions of Russian pensioners who survive on $200 a month. But election officials insist the video is "inciting social hatred", and in at least two regions, the state VGTRK channel stopped running the ad.
In another development, just two weeks before the poll, the Central Election Commission required all parties to submit their campaign videos for examination of their compliance with election laws. However, such "verification" can take up to 10 days, which means opposition parties risk losing out during the last days of campaigning. Political analyst Igor Mintusov says that is especially damaging for opposition parties who still want to target the 10 per cent to 30 per cent of voters who remain undecided.
Rise in absentee ballots
Observers have also noticed another disturbing trend: an unusual rise in absentee ballots compared to the 2007 elections. Experts say this could be used to rig election results in favour of United Russia. Data published and analysed by Gazeta.ru, a Russian news website, shows especially noticeable increases in absentee ballots in regions close to Moscow. For example, Bryansk region has issued 10,863 absentee ballots compared to just 636 in 2007. In the Tula region, 11,557 were issued compared to 2,048 in 2007; in the Kostroma region, this figure is 542 compared to 179 four years ago.
Grigori Golosov, professor of political science and sociology at the European Institute in St Petersburg, says state employers (such as hospitals, schools and state-owned factories) may be planning to force their employees to vote in a certain location where United Russia faces especially low ratings. Another expert, Aleksandr Kynev from the Development Fund of Information Politics, says the ballots can even be used several times. "Authorities are pressing all the buttons to mobilise the voters. They are collecting all the votes they can get for the party of power, wherever they can. Even a few percentage points can make a difference. Sometimes, the party may need just a few votes to gain or lose a seat in parliament."
Banning opposition from running
But perhaps, the biggest blow to those who oppose the Kremlin and United Russia has been the refusal of Russian authorities to register several parties that would have contested the 2011 elections. In July, the Justice Ministry refused registration of the liberal People's Freedom Party (Parnas), founded by former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov and former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov. The Ministry alleged that Parnas' party lists of supporters' signatures included people who were either underage or deceased. Parnas says the decision was politically motivated.
The Justice Ministry has also rejected registration materials filed by Other Russia, citing alleged inaccuracies in its charter, and those of Motherland Common Sense due to alleged flaws in documents submitted for registration.
In April, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the requirements for party registration under Russian law are not sufficiently precise, and that by refusing parties' registration the government violates Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights (freedom of assembly and association).
Since then, the banned opposition groups have been urging voters to boycott the elections, calling them the death of Russian democracy. They say the poll is illegitimate and must be annulled. Their views, never broadcast on major state-owned national channels, may have hard time reaching the majority of Russians. But with authorities using a full battery of dirty political tricks, questions about the legitimacy of this election campaign and elections themselves, may get more numerous and increasingly hard to ignore.