| MOSCOW -- Young Muscovites have a special treat in store:
Dinamit FM, a
local youth-oriented FM radio station, is giving away 20,000 tickets to
annual dance festival, "Bomb of the Year." There's just one catch:
those who vote in Sunday's presidential election are eligible.
"We want to raise our listeners' political awareness," said
spokeswoman Lera Churmantaeva. She denied the promotion was ordered by
When President Vladimir Putin faces re-election Sunday, his most serious
adversary won't be any of the five rival candidates -- it will be voter
apathy. With virtually no doubt he will triumph, getting enough voters
polling stations may be the biggest challenge facing Mr. Putin's campaign
Turnout for elections in the U.S. and some European countries is routinely
low. But under Russian law, voting figures are crucial: If turnout falls
below 50%, an election is invalid and a fresh vote must be held. For the
Kremlin, which sees Sunday's vote as a referendum on Mr. Putin and his
policies, that makes getting the vote out critical.
Mr. Putin has won the support of millions of Russians -- roughly 70%
them, according to recent opinion polls -- with a first term that brought
sense of stability to a country shaken by a decade of crises, along with
economic boom driven largely by high prices for oil, Russia's main export.
But the former KGB colonel has set alarm bells ringing among liberals
Russia and in many Western capitals by tightening control over the
political system, squeezing out powerful opponents and bringing major
television networks firmly under state tutelage.
The Kremlin used that influence in December's parliamentary elections,
the pro-Putin party sweeping to a commanding majority at the expense of
opposition groups. European monitors criticized the campaign for biased
media coverage and other official manipulations, fueling fears that Mr.
Putin is reversing Russia's progress toward democracy. Mr. Putin denies
those allegations, insisting he is committed to democratic reforms.
The concerns have resurfaced in the latest campaign. Mr. Putin has refused
to engage his rivals in televised debates, but enjoys near-saturation
coverage on state TV. International observers found that in the first
weeks of the campaign, the state-owned First Channel dedicated more than
two hours and 38 minutes of its news coverage to Mr. Putin, while all
candidates combined got 22 minutes.
With little public political competition, voter apathy could be the
limit on what has come to be known in Russia as "managed democracy."
Russia's young democracy, the novelty of elections so far has helped to
boost turnout. But voter enthusiasm has been waning: 62% of them voted
the 1999 parliamentary elections, but only 56% in last year's.
The authorities appear aware of the risk that not enough people will
up at the ballot box. Last fall, a leader of the pro-Kremlin United Russia
party said voting should be made mandatory, though the Kremlin didn't
up on the idea.
Some political analysts say fears of a low turnout may be overstated.
"Most Russians see Sunday's vote as a plebiscite, not an election,"
Igor Bunin, of the Center for Political Technologies. "As loyal subjects,
they'd vote for Putin even if there were no other candidates running
Opposition figures say Mr. Putin's aides aren't taking any chances.
Glazyev, a left-leaning candidate, claims provincial civil servants have
been threatened with the sack unless they ensure 70% voter turnout in
constituencies, with 70% of all votes going to Mr. Putin. He warned such
pressure was coming directly from the president's administration.
Officials in Moscow admit there are excesses. Deputy Prime Minister
Alexander Zhukov condemned a recent scandal in the far-eastern region
Khabarovsk, where state-run hospitals refused to admit patients unless
had filled out absentee-ballot papers. "Such cases," he said,
the authorities and are unacceptable."
The fault, said Russia's top election official, Alexander Veshnyakov,
with overzealous local bureaucrats trying to curry favor with the Kremlin
by using "Soviet-era" methods to get out the vote. In today's
said, such techniques might have the opposite effect and increase the
But subtler methods are also at work. In Khabarovsk, two mobile-phone
companies, DalTelekom and OAO MTS, are sending all of their subscribers
text messages reminding them to vote. College deans in some parts of the
nation's far east have declared Sunday a normal study day, so students
remain closer to polling stations and don't sneak home for the weekend.
Soccer lovers will have less to distract them from their civic duty: All
premier-league matches scheduled for Sunday have been canceled.
Anti-Putin liberals -- a marginal electoral group these days -- are
meanwhile split on whether to vote for opposition candidates, or boycott
the elections altogether. Grigory
Yavlinsky, leader of the liberal Yabloko party, which suffered a crushing
defeat in December's Duma elections, says voting would mean supporting
the regime Mr. Putin has created -- "an authoritarian political system
where the press, secret services, elections, Parliament and business are
all controlled from one room."
The Yabloko party demanded Wednesday that courts annul December's Duma
elections in 170 of 225 voting districts, claiming widespread
irregularities that skewed the results in favor of United Russia.
Others disagree with Mr. Yavlinsky. Boycotting this election would "mean
won't be seeing any more elections at all," said Irina Khakamada,
opposition presidential candidate.
Russia's electoral officials, for their part, shrug off criticism of
campaign -- especially if it comes from Americans. "They should run
elections properly too, so the whole world doesn't then laugh at the
results ... like they did in Florida," Mr. Veshnyakov said in an
this week with a Russian magazine.
State Duma elections
Presidential elections 2004