Russia's ruling party faces fraud allegations
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Olga Lazareva, a communist working as a polling station official in Russia's parliamentary election, says she woke a few hours before the polls opened to find her apartment door had been glued shut.
The glue, she said, was meant to delay her arrival on Sunday at the voting station in Tula, south of Moscow, where her approval was needed to confirm ballot boxes were empty and a free and fair election could begin. She managed to get out by calling relatives who forced open the door.
Lazareva said she suspects other commission members planned to stuff the boxes with ballots for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's United Russia, which had its majority in parliament cut by voters tired of the entrenched ruling party.
She said by telephone that four other communists had similar experiences at polling stations in her neighborhood as part of what Tula's communists said was a series of dirty tricks intended to boost the vote for Putin's party.
"There were unprecedented violations in this election," said Lazareva, 60. "I have been on the commission since 1990 and I've seen a lot, but I have never see such blatant misconduct."
Although there was, in the end, no ballot-box stuffing at Lazareva's polling station, the communist campaign chief in Tula, Valentina Mishina, said it was widespread in the province.
"When boxes were opened there were packs of 50, 60 ballots folded in half and bundled up, all clearly filled out by the same hand," Mishina said.
Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, whose party came second with nearly 20 percent of the vote, said it was the dirtiest election since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 even though United Russia suffered a big decline in support.
European observers said the vote "was characterized by frequent procedural violations and instances of apparent manipulation, including several serious indications of ballot box stuffing."
They said the field was slanted in United Russia's favour and the campaign was marked by "limited political competition and a lack of fairness."
President Dmitry Medvedev, who is stepping aside next year to allow for Putin's return to the top seat of power for the world's largest energy producer, rejected allegations of fraud and called the vote "fair, honest and democratic."
Tiny Kox, head of the delegation of monitors from the Council of Europe parliamentary assembly, said numerous ballots were found folded together in a sign of ballot stuffing at about 10 percent of the polling stations his team monitored.
Both the White House and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said they had "serious concerns" about the conduct of the election.
The communists said they had won more votes than the result recorded for them and threatened legal action.
Vladimir Zhirinovsky's nationalist LDPR party also cried foul, saying its monitors were thrown out of polling stations in the oil-producing region of Bashkortostan and in the Black Sea Krasnodar region.
A spokesman, who declined to be named, said election commission members in the Siberian Chelyabinsk province had been openly campaigning for United Russia inside the polling station.
Political analysts say the centralization of power under Putin during his eight-year presidency until 2008 encourages abuses because many regions compete to secure the highest vote for United Russia -- a show of loyalty they hope will be rewarded by a bigger share of state handouts.
A cyber attack shut down the website of independent Russian election monitor Golos and prevented it displaying an interactive map showing reports of alleged violations.
"The attack was an attempt to close down our reporting on violations, because the violations we have shown reflect very poorly on the people who are in power," said Golos deputy director Grigory Melkonyants.
(Editing by Timothy Heritage)