Russians take to polls, Putin party victory expected

Russians in the Far East have begun voting in key parliamentary polls expected to hand victory to Vladimir Putin's party amid claims of campaign fraud and unprecedented intimidation of observers.

The world's largest country is spread over nine time zones and as Muscovites were going to sleep, naval officers, oil workers and deer herders in the Far East were already casting their ballots.

Seven parties are running in the elections to the lower house of parliament, the 450-deputy State Duma, which are seen as a dry run of March presidential polls in which current Prime Minister Putin is expected to win back his old Kremlin job.

Nikolai Ponomaryov, a warrant officer from the Marshal Shaposhnikov anti-submarine warship based in the Pacific port of Vladivostok, said he voted for United Russia.

"Already this spring my family will get an apartment in a new district," he said, noting that Putin's party was defending the interests of the army and that he also expected a salary hike from January.

"I link these changes with the work of United Russia," he said as his colleagues queued outside a polling station early Sunday.

Polls opened at 2000 GMT Saturday (0900 NZT Sunday) in the Far East, and the Primorsky Krai where Vladivostok is located was one of several Far Eastern regions where polling began.

The other regions to vote first included parts of diamond-mining Yakutia, the region of Sakhalin which includes an island chain contested by Japan, Kamchatka, and Magadan, the site of Soviet-era Gulag camps.

"Despite temperatures of 26 degrees below zero voters are coming to polling stations," Konstantin Mikhailov, head of the election commission in the city of Anadyr in the region of Chukotka populated by indigenous herders, told AFP.

Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev, who will step aside next year, made clear they did not want to see a squabbling parliament like in the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin.

"If someone wants to watch a show, then they need to go to the circus, the movies or theatre," Putin told workers at a shipyard in Saint Petersburg, urging Russians to vote for his party.

Analysts say United Russia had initially hoped to repeat the success of the last parliamentary elections in 2007 when it secured a landslide majority of 64.3 per cent and received 315 seats in the Duma.

But with support for Putin and his party crumbling, United Russia is expected to win just over half the vote, according to pollsters.

Independent observers and opposition parties expect authorities to skew polling results in favour of United Russia and say the only major intrigue would be the scale of falsifications to secure victory for Putin's party.

In the run-up to the vote, Russia's independent monitor group Golos (Voice) claimed widespread violations in the election campaign including pressure to vote for United Russia, incurring Putin's wrath.

Speaking last weekend, Putin lashed out at Western attempts to "influence the course of the election campaign" through Russian NGOs, warning this was "money thrown to the wind."

Following Putin's address, Golos has become the target of what its supporters say is a brutal campaign of intimidation, a treatment reserved for top Kremlin enemies.

On Friday, Golos was fined nearly $1,000 and became the subject of a prime time television programme that accused the observer group of acting in the interests of the US government.

Golos said its head Lilia Shibanova had been held for 12 hours Saturday by customs officials when she landed at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport after a business trip.

Officials also confiscated her laptop, she told AFP, calling the incident "a provocation" aimed at preventing her from travelling to the European parliament next week.

Golos also said the FSB security service and police were harrassing their regional coordinators and its "Map of violations" website documenting claims of campaign fraud became the target of a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack on Saturday.

"We are not going to stop," the observer group said in a statement.

The last polling stations will close at 1700 GMT Sunday (0600 NZT Monday) in the exclave of Kaliningrad on the borders with the European Union.

- AFP

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