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Local elections to test Kremlin's popularity

Latest update : 2009-03-01

Russians voted in elections for town councils, regional parliaments and mayors on Sunday, in the first poll since the economic crisis. Opponents of President Dmitry Medvedev's party accuse the government of abusing its power in campaigns.

REUTERS - Millions of Russians voted on Sunday in local elections in the first major test of the Kremlin's popularity since the start of an economic crisis and a dip in turnout could point to some voter discontent.

The Kremlin is concerned rising unemployment and economic hardship will fuel protests and undermine its authority, and opponents have accused the United Russia party, headed by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, of using dirty tricks in the campaign.

United Russia officials dismissed the criticism as political opportunism in the vote for some town councils, regional parliaments and mayors which involves about a fifth of all eligible voters in Russia.

Russian news agencies reported a drop in voter turnout from completed elections in Russia's Far East and Siberia. Analysts say that in Russia's carefully managed political system, lower turnout is one of the easiest ways for voters toshow their dissatisfaction.

Just 30 minutes before the polls shut for the mayoral election in the city of Tomsk in Siberia, RIA Novosti reported turnout was around 36 percent compared to a final tally of 61 percent in 2004 when the vote had been held alongside a presidential election.

Figures from other towns and regions showed turnout dropping by 10 percentage points, although some areas bucked the trend.

In Bryansk, an industrial region of 1.3 million people near Russia's border with Belarus and Ukraine, the Communists are mounting a strong challenge for the regional parliament

At a polling station in the regional capital 380 km (236 miles) southwest of Moscow, 70-year-old Kira Alexandrova had come straight from her work as a night janitor in a school to vote for the Communists. "My monthly pension is 4,300 roubles (around $122)," she said. "How can I survive on this pittance?"

A senior official at the regional Communist Party said about 60 to 65 percent of the population supported his party but he said United Russia would try to fix the results.

Golos, an independent monitoring group, said it had seen people handing out pancakes, lottery tickets and small gifts. Russia's Central Election Committee said it had not seen any serious violations.

At the polling station in Bryansk, Natalya Gudrova, a 45-year-old street cleaner, had voted for United Russia.

"I voted for United Russia because there is stability and because medical services have improved," she said.

She added the regional governor, a member of United Russia, had previously promised to rehouse her from the old building she lives in where she shares a bathroom with other families.

Kremlin Party quietly confident ahead of the vote

Neither Putin nor President Dmitry Medvedev are directly involved in the polls.

But both are expected to look at the results for a mark of popularity in the face of falling wages and rising unemployment which has jumped to a 2-1/2 year high of 5.8 million.

Opinion polls show support for Putin and Medvedev has fallen since the financial crisis gripped Russia last October, but analysts expect only a small dip in support at the polls.

In an interview with Spanish media before flying to Madrid for a state visit, Medvedev said the downturn would not trigger instability in Russia and he brushed aside criticism the authorities tried to prevent opposition groups from protesting.

"They take to the streets and call loudly for the president and the government to resign," he said in the interview broadcast by Russian television. "They are free to make all the statements they want to make."

The Kremlin created United Russia during Putin's 2000-2008 term as president to build an election force at local level.

It dominates the national parliament and media, and is expected to retain control of the nine regional parliaments, the mayors of the major towns and the bulk of the town and village councils in the 3,600 separate elections on Sunday.

There is no voting in Moscow or St Petersburg or in Vladivostok in the Far East which recently saw protests over tariffs on imported Japanese cars that hit the local economy.

Date created : 2009-03-01