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Putin's Party Expected to Win Majority in Russian Elections - 2003-12-07

Russians are voting Sunday to select 450 deputies for the lower house of parliament, the Duma, in an election which looks set to give President Vladimir Putin a controlling majority in the legislature at the expense of liberal parties. Voters are making their way to polling booths across Russia's vast territory, which stretches over 11 time zones.

109 million people are eligible to vote, but experts are worried turnout could be lower than during the last election four years ago.

Voter apathy is caused, in part, by the sense that the outcome of the election is all but known.

Most Russians refer to the political group known as United Russia as the "party of power," an alliance of pro-Kremlin groups formed to support President Vladimir Putin under the slogan "Together with the President." United Russia has dominated the outgoing Duma.

Opinion polls show United Russia is well ahead of its closest rival, the Communist Party, which traditionally receives about one-third of the vote but is expected to get less this time.

Many analysts believe United Russia and various other pro-Kremlin parties could even attain a two-thirds majority in the Duma, allowing Mr. Putin to make changes to the constitution with no opposition.

The overwhelming power and popularity of Mr. Putin also comes at the expense of two small liberal parties, Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces (SPS), which may not even reach the minimum threshold of five percent to hold seats in the Duma.

Last week, SPS deputy leader Irina Khakamada said the two parties are in a "catastrophic position," and that the new Duma could become a rubber stamp for the president.

Mr. Putin's popularity stems mostly from his image as a leader who restored order and economic stability to Russia after the uncertainty of the Boris Yeltsin era. The 51-year-old former KGB officer has also tapped nationalist sentiment in a population undergoing the trauma of the difficult transition out of the Soviet past.

Critics say United Russia enjoyed all the advantages of state support, including more ample coverage in broadcast media that are almost all under the Kremlin's control.

They also say the dominant party also made use of so-called "dirty tricks." Militia often harassed opposition supporters at public rallies, and various opposition candidates were disqualified from even running in the election due to technicalities.

The Duma vote is the first step in what is expected to be an overwhelming victory for President Putin in the presidential election due to be held next March.