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Putin's party: Russian election marred by allegations of fraud, coercion

Critics say Sunday's parliamentary vote, boycotted by Europe's election watchdog, may be the least democratic election since the USSR collapsed.

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Though more than a dozen parties are on the ballot for Russia's parliamentary election Sunday, one would hardly know it. The pro-Kremlin United Russia (UR) party, whose standing has jumped more than 25 percent since President Vladimir Putin announced he would head its candidate list last month, could fairly win up to two-thirds of votes for the 450-seat State Duma, according to most polls.

But in what some experts say may be the least democratic election since the USSR collapsed, boycotted by Europe's election-monitoring body, the campaign has been marred by complaints from opposition parties of official interference, seizure of campaign literature, the exclusion of some candidates from the ballot, and the sidelining of independent Russian poll observers.

Over the past week, allegations have also surfaced, notably in an investigative report by the English-language Moscow Times, that voter coercion and outright fraud are being deployed to loft UR's vote to even greater-than-expected heights.

"On a scale of 1 to 100, the level of democracy in this campaign is zero," says Lilia Shibanova, head of Golos, Russia's only nationwide network of independent election monitors. "The laws are being systematically violated. Officials at all levels are involved in agitation on behalf of a single party. There is direct pressure on citizens [to vote a particular way], especially at the municipal level."

Putin's personal stake in the election

Appearing on national TV for the first time in his new role as chief candidate for UR, Mr. Putin on Thursday asked Russians to pin their faith on him.

"The country is entering a period of complete renewal of the top legislative and executive power," said Putin. "In this situation, it is especially important for us to secure continuity of the course and fulfill all obligations to people. I am asking you to go and vote for the United Russia party," he added. It was the same message he has delivered many times since announcing his candidacy with UR in early October, but the first time that UR actually paid for the Putin's public endorsement.

Constitutionally required to step down as president when his second term expires in March, Putin's apparent bid to carve out a new leadership role for himself hinges in part on UR's success Sunday.

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