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Page last updated at 13:18 GMT, Sunday, 2 March 2008

Voters wooed with caps and food

By Richard Galpin
BBC News, Vladivostok

Pro-Medvedev campaigner in bear outfit, Vladivostok, 26 Feb 08
The cuddly candidate? Medvedev's team used some unusual tactics

There may not have been any campaigning worth speaking about before this election, but there was certainly a mammoth effort to persuade people to vote on Sunday for a new president.

From text messages to all mobile phone subscribers across the country, to presents being offered to first-time voters, every method of persuasion and seduction seems to have been employed.

In this far eastern port city, which gives Russia access to the Pacific Ocean, they were handing out baseball caps to students who made their first tentative steps inside a polling station.

In other parts of the region, it is reported that discount shopping vouchers were on offer.

And in each polling station as is traditional in Russia: a stand selling cheap food.

In the polling station we visited shortly after opening time at 0800 on Sunday there was inevitably a sleepy atmosphere, as the line of officials sat at their desks inside the school room, waiting for their first customers.

Concern about crime

It was not long before the more senior members of the electoral staff became irritated with our prying questions and activities.

CANDIDATES FOR POWER
Dmitry Medvedev: First deputy prime minister and chairman of Gazprom, endorsed by President Putin
Gennady Zyuganov: Veteran Communist Party leader
Vladimir Zhirinovsky: Ultra-nationalist leader
Andrei Bogdanov: Little-known head of small Democratic Party

We extricated ourselves as the first groups of elderly people and yawning policemen were lining up to savour their apparent moment of true freedom.

Outside, a rather reluctant man eventually agreed to say a few words to us.

Not of course about who he had voted for, but why he had voted for the candidate whose name would not be revealed.

"I voted for the candidate who will best deal with mobster crime in this city," he said.

It was an intriguing answer, a sign that local issues have played some part in the selection of a new national leader.

It was a beautiful day here, 11 hours of sunshine, so no excuse for people to stay at home.

But in the run-up to the election, the authorities here seem to have been nervous that turnout would be low and so resorted to less innocent means to persuade people to vote, other than the simple offer of a present or cheap food.

Abuse allegations

Last week I met a civil servant working in the regional administration in Vladivostok, who told me she and the other members of her department had received a direct order from their boss to vote in the election. Understandably she did not want to give her name.

View of Vladivostok
Vladivostok is seven hours ahead of Moscow

"After the election everyone is directly asked if they have voted," she said, adding her career could be jeopardised if she ignored the order.

A local politician also gave us a copy of a document which he alleged was an instruction to local officials to meet specific pre-determined targets for turnout and for the number of votes the winning candidate should receive.

It is impossible to verify his claim.

But it is an indication of the overall mistrust of the way this election has been conducted, right from the selection of candidates by the Central Electoral Commission to the media coverage of those allowed to run.

The authorities deny any wrongdoing and say the election is free and fair.




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