Don's diary: Electrifying elections

January 2, 2004

Monday

I'm here in Moscow as an international observer at the Russian parliamentary elections. My hotel is the Rossiya, just off Red Square. My room overlooks the river, and beyond it is the power station that used to proclaim Lenin's slogan "Socialism is Soviet power plus electrification of the entire country". When the economy began to collapse at the end of the 1980s, people began to say it meant "Soviet power minus electrification of the entire country". Now there's no Soviet power either.

Tuesday

Off to the Central Electoral Commission to collect my credentials. The pundits are predicting a turnout of no more than 55 per cent, but here they're sure it will be well into the 60s. It's not entirely clear why anyone should bother to vote as the Duma has little independent authority, and the party system has been largely constructed by elites for their own benefit.

One unusual feature of the ballot paper is the facility to vote against all the candidates. Last time, in 1999, "against all" came sixth of the 26 parties and actually won eight of the single-member constituencies.

Everyone agrees that "against all" has had a good campaign and will do even better this time.

Wednesday

All kinds of other elections are taking place at the same time, among them that for the presidency of Bashkortostan, in the southern Urals.

One of the papers is on to a good story. Late at night, some of the local opposition noticed that the lights were still burning in the presidential printing works. When they got in, they found 800,000 freshly printed ballot papers, over and above the ones that had already been printed for the republic's 2.9 million voters. The outcome, oppositionists claimed, could well have been a "Georgian scenario", with demonstrators challenging the result in the streets.

Thursday

There's another good story in today's papers. Russia's population has been falling by about a million a year. But the size of the electorate has been increasing - by no less than 2 million in the first six months of 2003 alone. Sceptics expect a big rise in early voting and in the use of mobile ballot boxes, both of which make it relatively easy for the authorities to get the results they want.

Friday

Much of the campaign takes place on television, as it does worldwide. The Communist Party is getting more attention than in the recent past - but it's nearly all negative. The Kremlin is giving most of its support to the United Russia party but is backing some other parties just in case.

In the individual constituencies, there's another way of taking votes from your opponents: putting up "doubles" with the same surname.

There's even a "Mr" and "Mrs CPRF", named after the Kremlin's main challenger.

Sunday

I go to a polling station on Kosygin Street where Putin, Gorbachev and many others are expected to vote. The president has done his duty by the time I arrive (his dog had puppies so he had to rush home), but there are still plenty of police - everyone is concerned about a possible terrorist attack.

Back late to the hotel, where one of the staff gives me a card that provides half-price admission to its night club. Do I look as if I need the money? Or, more encouragingly, as if I'm one of nature's fun-lovers? Either way, it's a bit too late to find out.

Stephen White is professor of international politics at the University of Glasgow.

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