MOSCOW – As elections for governors, mayors and regional legislatures took place across Russia this weekend — and President Vladimir Putin's loyalists swept almost all the posts — independent observers registered an array of suspected violations.
It was par for the course in Russia, where standard techniques for manipulating elections include "carousel voting" and "spoiler candidates," as well as more common violations such as ballot box stuffing. The difficulties for opposition candidates also often start well before the campaign begins.
Here is a look at the various techniques that the Kremlin and its supporters have used in elections to help ensure the desired outcome.
Russians can easily secure a certificate allowing them to vote at any polling station, a variation on the absentee ballot. Teachers, employees of state companies, soldiers and others are often required to vote at their workplace, under the eyes of their bosses and under pressure to vote for the Kremlin party.
Observers have recorded instances in which officials helped voters to obtain multiple certificates, enabling them to vote at several polling stations.
In the city of Bryansk on Sunday, a representative of the Kremlin party, United Russia, drove off with a Communist Party observer on the hood of his car after the observer spotted these voting certificates being distributed from the car, according to the Communist Party and a video posted online.
Election observers say that a typical carousel voter is paid up to $100 a day to be bused from one polling station to another to cast multiple ballots, a scheme that normally requires prior agreement with election officials at the polling stations. The carousel voters normally are required to take a picture of the ballot to prove they chose the "right" candidate, although in some cases they receive the ballots already marked.
In the city of Izhevsk, observers reported seeing a group of several dozen men with certificates for absentee ballots entering a polling station in pairs and then returning in a group to a van parked outside, where they showed a man photos from their cell phones.
After widespread reports of fraud in a December parliamentary election, all polling stations were equipped with web cameras. Even so, observers say some election officials still manage to slip in wads of ballots. A video from a polling station in the southern Krasnodar region shows an election official taking a pile of ballots from a desk and putting them into the ballot box.
In the Tula region, the opposition Yabloko party said election officials broke the finger of a Yabloko representative as she tried to prevent ballot stuffing.
COPYCAT PARTIES AND SPOILER CANDIDATES
New legislation drafted in response to anti-Putin protests last winter made it easier for parties to take part in elections. One result is dozens of copycat parties, for instance with the words "Communist" or "justice" in their names. This is mostly meant to confuse elderly voters, who might tick the first box they see with a familiar word next to it.
Spoiler candidates are also common. These are often seemingly independent figures who run against Kremlin-backed candidates to create a semblance of competition and to steal votes from genuine opposition politicians.
In the mayoral race in the Moscow suburb of Khimki, opposition leader and environmentalist Yevgeniya Chirikova was up against not only the acting mayor but a former government official known for his environmental activism and a heavy metal singer with a cult following. Chirikova came in second after the acting mayor with 18 percent of the vote. The independent election monitoring organization Golos estimated that spoiler candidates received 8 percent of the vote nationwide.
HIGH THRESHOLD FOR HOPEFULS
Also in response to the street protests, the Kremlin restored elections for Russia's 83 regional governors, which Putin had abolished in 2004. But candidates can run only if they represent a party and have the endorsement of at least 5 percent of the lawmakers in their regional legislatures, which tend to be under the Kremlin party's control.