The Associated Press
Thursday, December 7, 2006; 4:01 PM
MOSCOW -- Russian elections will be valid regardless of turnout under laws that went into effect Thursday, a major change that critics say is the latest step by the Kremlin to control the political process before key votes in 2007 and 2008.
The electoral amendments, signed Tuesday by President Vladimir Putin, appear aimed to neutralize voter apathy as a potential factor in elections. Previously, presidential elections required a 50 percent turnout to be valid and parliamentary elections, 25 percent.
With Kremlin having broad state broad control over media and the political process giving government-approved politicians a major advantage in elections, apathy had been one of a dwindling number of threats to Kremlin-backed candidates.
Turnout in Russian elections is generally fairly high, but the legislation could be aimed to ensure that votes are valid even if more voters lose interest _ a risk because many Russians have little confidence that their vote can make a difference in elections they see as choreographed events.
Barred by the constitution from running for a third consecutive term in March 2008, Putin has indicated he will groom a favored successor, but his chosen candidate is unlikely to enjoy anything like the popularity he commands. Parliamentary elections are to held in December 2007.
Supporters of the change said it was in line with international practice.
The new amendments also bar candidates from releasing negative information about their rivals in campaign broadcasts, a prohibition critics say could be used to silence criticism of incumbents over their records. They also eliminate advance voting, a practice that some international observers say can be abused to affect the results.
The change in electoral law follows Kremlin-initiated legislation that has scrapped direct election of regional leaders, barred voters from rejecting all candidates on a ballot and raised the barrier that smaller parties must clear to win parliament seats.
The amendments also establish new barriers to extremists running for office, a provision that critics fear will be used to unfairly brand rivals of the dominant Kremlin-controlled party, United Russia, and other Kremlin-allied parties.