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Low Voter Turnout Expected for Russian Election - 2004-03-12

Voters are expected to re-elect Russian President Vladimir Putin by a wide margin Sunday, but they are not expected to form long lines to cast their ballots. Mr. Putin faces five opponents, none of whom has an approval rating of more than 10 percent.

Few people doubt that President Putin will be re-elected to a second four-year term. He is going into the Sunday poll with approval ratings above 70 percent and no real political opposition.

The only suspense is whether voter turnout will be at least 50 percent to make the election constitutionally valid.

In last December's parliamentary elections, only 47 percent of the electorate bothered to turn up on polling day, and similar numbers in the presidential elections would invalidate the result.

Russia's election officials are working hard across the country to spark voter interest.

In Khabarovsk, in Russia's Far East, local election officials are even offering those who cast their ballot a chance to win a three-day trip to China. On Moscow's busy subway, posters courting the youth vote offer free tickets to a techno rave music party. Russian national television has been running daily ads by the Central Election Commission, urging the population to turn out at the polls.

This voter has got the message. The young man says he will vote because the future depends on it. He says he will vote for Mr. Putin, because he agrees with the president's reform policies.

An elderly voter put it another way. The man says he will vote in favor of President Putin because he says the others, in his view, are not worthy of being president.

Mr. Putin's challengers include independent Sergei Glazyev, Oleg Malyshkin of the Liberal Democratic Party, and Irina Khakamada, who is running as an independent, after the liberals she represents were crushed in last year's parliamentary elections.

The Communist party's Nikolai Kharitinov is also in the race and is widely expected to come in a distant second.

Also in the running is the speaker of Russia's lower house, or Duma, Sergei Mironov, who kicked off his campaign by saying he actually supported President Putin, but was in the race to give voters what he called democratic choice.

One of the more outspoken opposition candidates, Ivan Rybkin, dropped out of the race last week, saying the election has turned into a farce.

The political opposition has been critical of the campaign process, saying the media, which are largely controlled by the government, are biased in Mr. Putin's favor. Some of them filed an official complaint with the Central Election Commission about the media coverage, but the commission rejected their claim.

At least 1,000 international observers will monitor the vote. First results are expected as early as Monday.