MOSCOW - With regional elections Sunday from St. Petersburg to Siberia, Russians are entering what promises to be a year of ballots choreographed to ensure a smooth succession and enable President Vladimir Putin to keep a hand on the steering wheel even after he steps down.
Barred by the constitution from seeking a third straight term in March 2008, Putin has strongly hinted he will choose a favored successor and continue to wield influence, and he evidently wants to leave little to chance: the system in place for regional elections, and national parliamentary balloting in December, has been shaped by the Kremlin in ways that critics say have rolled back democracy.
With two mainstream parties and a handful of others competing for seats in 14 regional legislatures, Sunday's elections might seem like an ordinary exercise in democracy, but here are the main ingredients: More restrictive electoral legislation; a tight government grip on television; bureaucratic land mines to trip up opponents; and a new party that casts itself as the opposition but that critics say is servant of Putin's needs.
Those in power "are doing everything they can to stay in power for the next 10-15 years without sufficient support from the voters," said Nikita Belykh, leader of SPS, the liberal Union of Right Forces party.
At the heart of the strategy is the new party, called Just Russia. It is led by the speaker of parliament's upper house, Sergei Mironov, who showed his loyalty to Putin in 2004 by running against him for president and calling it a gesture of support. It was seen as an attempt to make Putin's certain victory look like a more competitive effort amid Western accusations that the president has backtracked on the democracy that took root after the Soviet collapse.
Putin's problem - and that of allies nervously eyeing his exit - is that his hold on power is built on his personal popularity, while his power base, the United Russia party, is widely seen as a group of greedy, corrupt politicians. Mironov's new faction aims to offer a less tainted but still Putin-friendly alternative.
Analysts say the goal is to help ensure the authority of Putin's chosen successor by broadening the Kremlin's power base, while also deflecting comparions to the Soviet-era one-party state by creating the semblance of a two-party system.
"If the Kremlin wants to recreate the Putin majority without Putin, that's one reason it needs not one party but two," political analyst Alexei Zudin said on Ekho Moskvy radio.
While there are signs of genuine competition between Just Russia and United Russia in Sunday's election, analysts stress that both support Putin and that both are likely to support the same preferred successor in the presidential vote.
"They will nominate a single candidate, and no struggle will be allowed," said Tatyana Stanovaya, an analyst with the Center for Political Technologies think tank.
At a news conference last month, Putin called it "consolidation" needed to keep Russia on the course he has set. Despite his promises of a level playing field and democratic elections, the new rules raise barriers and narrow voter choice.
To cross the threshold for winning seats in parliament, a party must get now 7 percent of the vote, up from 5 percent previously.
To get on the regional ballots, parties had to pay a large registration fee - $3.5 million for the St. Petersburg race - or submit tens of thousands of signatures in each province. That left challengers vulnerable to the whims of authorities, many of them closely linked to United Russia.
The SPS opposition was barred from the ballot in four regions: one where, according to Belykh, members were given the wrong bank account numbers for paying the registration. Elsewhere, he alleged, candidates were squeezed out of the race under threats or promises of jobs.
In a Siberian region where it is on the ballot, Belykh said, pamphlets appeared that pictured him with a mayor who is under criminal investigation and that claimed the party has hired HIV-positive campaign workers.
In St. Petersburg, the liberal Yabloko party was barred because electoral officials ruled that more than 10 percent of the signatures checked by authorities were invalid. The party says its appeals were thwarted even after people whose signatures were ruled invalid testified to their authenticity.
"We haven't seen such a thing before since the Soviet collapse - such impudent, outrageous methods," charged Boris Vishnyevsky, a Yabloko official.
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