Russian Vote Begins, Under the Watch of the FSB

Casting ballotThe State Duma election has officially begun in Russia on Sunday, with polling stations opening in the far-Eastern provinces. Over the course of the day, some 108 million eligible voters will have the chance to cast their ballots at some 96,000 polling stations in 11 time zones. Of the 11 parties allowed on the ballot, United Russia is expected to win a large majority of votes. Due to a 7 percent threshold, it appears that most of the other parties will not win any seats.

This year’s elections are the most closely guarded by law enforcement authorities, including local militsiya and agents of the FSB. According to the Kommersant newspaper, this election will also mark the first time where the FSB will have complete authority over local law enforcement. Overall, some 450 thousand members of Russia’s security forces are on duty, with 20 thousand in Moscow alone.

National and international observers have criticized the electoral campaign, and have accused United Russia and the Kremlin of using illegal and improper means of gaining support. Opposition groups have accused the government of blocking their campaign ads, seizing campaigning materials, and raiding their headquarters. President Vladimir Putin, while not a member of United Russia, has repeatedly called on voters to support the party, and has asked for support during a televised presidential address.

Oddly enough, the vote seems to be more about Putin than about the Parliament. The president has called the election a “referendum” on his rule, and has said that a large win by United Russia would give his “moral authority” to retain influence in Russian affairs after his second presidential term ends in 2008. Putin is barred by the Constitution from seeking a third term, although political analysts expect him to stay in power one way or another.

International and national electoral monitors are in place to observe the election, although in smaller numbers than previous contests. Changes in electoral laws have cut down the number of Russian organizations that have access to polling stations, and fewer international monitors were invited by the Central Electoral Commission (CEC). One contingent of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has canceled its mission citing delays on the part of Russian authorities.

Garry Kasparov, the leader of the United Civil Front, has called the elections a “farce.”