- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 14, 2004

There is one force that still could derail the Vladimir Putin electoral juggernaut in today’s presidential vote — apathy.

Because of a quirk in the Russian Constitution, the election results would be declared invalid if less than 50 percent of eligible voters make it to the polls. Under the constitution, Mr. Putin would be forced to step down as president and Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov would temporarily assume executive powers until a second election could be organized.

Turnout in recent elections has hovered just above the 50 percent mark and analysts say the Kremlin is worried.

“If you look at his speeches, Mr. Putin still hasn’t asked voters to vote for him specifically,” noted Nikolai Zlobin, Washington editor of the Russian news service ProFile. “All he has done is to remind people to vote, period. It could be a big problem for him, because it could call into question the legitimacy of his second term.”

The government has pushed hard in recent days — some say too hard — to ensure an adequate turnout. Central Election Commission Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov warned Tuesday that picketing polling stations in support of a vote boycott would be considered illegal campaigning under Russia’s election laws.

Officials in the Khabarovsk Krai region in Russia’s Far East reportedly ordered local hospitals not to admit patients who could not produce absentee ballots. The Russian newspaper Izvestiya reported March 2 that regional authorities in other parts of Russia had threatened to fire local officials if the turnout is not high enough.

In both instances, voters were not ordered to vote for Mr. Putin, but simply to vote.

Sergei Glazev, head of the nationalist Motherland Party and one of five challengers to Mr. Putin on the ballot, told the radio station Echo of Moscow that “massive pressure” had been placed on local election and government officials to ensure an acceptable result. Mr. Glazev said the target formula was “70-70” — 70 percent turnout and a 70 percent vote for Mr. Putin.

Mr. Putin referred to the turnout question directly in his own nationally televised address Thursday.

“Participation in elections is a unique right to influence the course of events in your home country,” Mr. Putin said.

“Just imagine what would happen if the supreme authority of the state failed to be elected.”

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