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Last Updated: Sunday, 21 December, 2003, 18:26 GMT
Russia's liberals boycott poll

By Nikolai Gorshkov
BBC Moscow correspondent

Russia's liberal Yabloko party has decided not to field a candidate in next March's presidential election.

Polling station in St Petersberg
Yabloko accuses the Kremlin of rigging the parliamentary poll
Speaking at a party strategy conference in Moscow, their veteran leader Grigory Yavlinsky branded the forthcoming poll a farce.

Mr Yavlinksy, who finished a distant third in the 2000 presidential race, said he saw no prospect of a free and fair election.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is widely expected to be re-elected.

Following two days of soul-searching in the aftermath of a complete wipe-out in the parliamentary elections earlier this month, the Yabloko party has realised it stands no chance in the forthcoming presidential race.

It accused the Kremlin of rigging the results of the parliamentary election, which gave a landslide victory to the pro-presidential parties, and of stifling democratic opposition to President Putin.

The current political situation in Russia is such that free, fair and genuinely competitive elections are not possible
Grigory Yavlinksy

Mr Yavlinsky, who came third in the 2000 presidential race, said he no longer saw any of the prerequisites for a fair and free election in Russia.

His party Yabloko has been discussing a possible boycott of the election. So have the communists and the right-of-centre SPS party.

If they call on their supporters to abstain from voting, the turnout next March may be below the 50% needed to make the election legitimate.

People's president

Another option discussed by the opposition is to encourage its supporters to vote against all candidates.

If successful, this may force a second round for Mr Putin - a blow to his image.

But the worst option for him will be the absence of any contenders at all, which the opposition hopes will expose the undemocratic nature of Russia's new political set-up.

Observers say the Kremlin is now putting pressure on opposition politicians to join the race and help avoid criticism of a return to a one-party system.

To prove his critics wrong, President Putin declined an offer from the pro-presidential majority in the new parliament to run on their ticket, and decided to go to the polls as an independent - a people's president.

US shares Russia poll concerns
08 Dec 03  |  Europe
Russian democracy in question
08 Dec 03  |  Europe

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