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Putin Emerges Dominant After Vote

March 15, 2004|Kim Murphy and David Holley | Times Staff Writers

MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir V. Putin won a broad mandate for a second term Sunday, consolidating his lock on power in an election that left the entire opposition -- from pro-democracy forces to the Communist Party -- a shambles.

After a campaign scrupulously managed by the Kremlin with little real debate, Putin took a commanding lead over his five challengers, surprising no one when he collected 70% of the vote in incomplete returns. The most important question -- whether the majority of voters were sufficiently disillusioned to stay away from the polls and in the process invalidate the election -- was resolved as turnout exceeded 64%.

Three months ago, Putin's allies won a substantial majority in parliament. He now exerts such sweeping control that his program -- sharply expanding the economy, taking back more control of Russia's oil wealth, fighting corruption and reasserting Russia's global influence -- will unquestionably set the course of the next four years.

But he pledged to build democratic institutions and pursue a foreign policy based on compromise. "We will strive to guarantee the national interests of the Russian Federation, but in no case will we sink to using aggressive methods of pursuing our goals, whatever the justification," Putin said in a victory speech early today.

The campaign was characterized by a lack of significant opposition to the widely popular president, who is seen as a force for stability after the economic and political tumult of former President Boris N. Yeltsin's rule. Major opposition parties lost so badly in the parliamentary elections -- a campaign also stage-managed by the Kremlin -- that most ran second-stringers against Putin.

The incumbent refused to debate his challengers, and the opposition found itself nearly shut out of government-controlled television channels, denied access to meeting halls and subjected to severe criticism in some of the biggest newspapers.

Election observers and opposition leaders cited cases in which voters were allegedly prevented from casting ballots for anyone but the president, offered money to submit already marked ballots or forced by their employers to go to the polls.

At a Moscow psychiatric hospital, an opposition spokeswoman said, ballots that were marked for Putin were distributed. Two patients who asked for blank ballots were told there weren't any.

"You get the impression that you've come to play a game of chess, and your partner pulls out a bat and starts playing baseball," said leftist economist Sergei Glazyev, who was running third with about 4% of the vote. He said the campaign was marked by "a torrent of slander, delirium and dirt" directed at him in the media on the Putin administration's orders.

"I think we can draw only one conclusion from all this so far: that incumbent President Putin for the first time in the history of modern Russia had a unique chance to hold honest, open and politically clean elections, and he has missed that chance," Glazyev said.

The Communist Party, which nearly defeated Yeltsin in 1996 and won 30% of the vote against Putin in 2000, was running second with less than 15%. Nikolai Kharitonov, a parliament member since 1993, ran for president when longtime Communist leader Gennady A. Zyuganov -- furious with the Kremlin's control over the parliamentary campaign -- declined to run.

"I can speak about this defeat only as a loss to the system, which has enormous administrative, organizational and financial resources," a subdued Kharitonov said at his campaign headquarters, according to the Interfax news agency.

The apparent fourth-place finisher, Irina Khakamada, who ran as an independent on a pro-democracy platform, said Putin would have won the election in any case. "If Vladimir Putin would have ordered everyone to relax and not to do anything at all, he would have won anyway. But it would have been a much more elegant victory."

U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell expressed concern over Putin's opponents' lack of access to the media.

"Russians have to understand that to have full democracy of the kind that the international community will recognize, you've got to let candidates have all access to the media that the president has," Powell said in an appearance on "Fox News Sunday." At the same time, he said, "I don't think it signals the total demise of democracy in Russia. They've just got to do a better job of it."

Putin responded by chiding the United States about its own electoral system. "Four years ago, we were watching in amazement how the electoral system in the United States was faltering. So I hope that by criticizing us, they will draw certain conclusions for themselves and will perfect their own democratic procedures, too," he said.

Putin has said that he would not use his broad political powers to amend the Russian Constitution and seek a third term, but opponents said Sunday's balloting raised questions about how easy it would be to dislodge the president in 2008.

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