Putin voting 'scam'
Landslide predicted but fraud claims set to tarnish triumph
President Vladimir Putin's party swept towards a victory last night in a parliamentary election that critics have dismissed as a scam.
Exit polls pointed to a landslide for Mr Putin's United Russia party, triggering fresh speculation that a referendum could be called to change the constitution and allow him to remain in office after his final term expires next May.
Reports of ballot-stuffing, vote-buying and intimidation poured in from dozens of regions, independent election monitors said.
The alleged fraud, which threatens to tarnish Putin's victory, ranged from detaining observers to offering gifts in exchange for a pro-Putin vote.
"A group called Young Europe is inviting people who vote for Putin's team to take part in a lottery for prizes," said Leonid Gozman, a top official for opposition party Union of Right Forces.
"This looks like a mass action. People are showing up at the polls and asking: 'Where are the presents, where is the lottery?' and they are told, 'first you vote, then you get the presents'," Gozman said.
The main source of complaints has been Golos, Russia's only independent election observer. Its deputy head, Grigory Melkonyans, said the fraud was systematic.
"These are not isolated incidents. The complaints are from every corner of Russia," he said.
Few doubt that the widely anticipated result will be used as a pretext to justify Mr Putin retaining power.
Whether he plans to do so as president, prime minister or from some other post is only likely to become apparent later this month.
Fearing international opposition, Mr Putin has always pledged to respect the constitution by not seeking a third term. However, commentators suggest that recent ostensibly spontaneous demonstrations beseeching Mr Putin to stay, indicate that the president may have changed his mind.
Critics called the vote "the most dishonest" in post-Soviet history, outstripping even Boris Yeltsin's questionable re-election in 1996.
Critics condemned the election as an exercise in phantom democracy. Although voters had a choice of 11 parties, the only ones with a chance of making it into Russia's notoriously feckless Duma are either creations of the Kremlin, or loyal to it.
Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces, two pro-Western parties, were allowed to take part. Critics say this was because their failure to unite meant there was no chance of them crossing the 7pc threshold needed to gain representation in the Duma.
Mr Putin's most serious opponents, an unlikely coalition of pro-Western liberals and radical nationalists known as The Other Russia, were prevented from standing.
Its leader, the former chess champion Garry Kasparov, was jailed for five days last weekend after being found guilty of participating in an unlawful opposition protest.
"They are not just rigging the vote, they are raping the whole electoral system," Mr Kasparov said, after casting a deliberately spoiled ballot.
While the elections will lack international legitimacy after Europe's main observer body boycotted the poll, many Russians appeared happy to endorse the president by supporting United Russia.
Affection for Mr Putin is widespread, thanks to Russia's energy-driven economic boom and the censorship of much of the media.
The election campaign has been almost laughably one-sided. State television has lavished positive coverage on United Russia, whose billboards has been almost omnipresent across the country.
Many Russians believe that the loss of freedom has been an acceptable price to pay for the stability they have enjoyed in the past few years. (© Daily Telegraph, London)