(photo credit: AP [file])
With the Kremlin determined to see a high turnout for Sunday's parliamentary election, many Russians say they are being pressured to vote at their workplace under the watchful eye of their boss or risk losing their job.
They say they also are being told to provide lists of family and friends who will vote for United Russia, the party of President Vladimir Putin.
United Russia is expected to win handily. But after Putin turned the election into a plebiscite on his rule, the Kremlin appears to be pushing for nothing short of a landslide. The constitution requires Putin to step down in May but with the support of a strong majority of Russians he could claim a popular mandate to retain power.
"The plebiscite will become a mockery if only slightly more than half of the people vote and if only 60 percent of those vote for United Russia (as the latest polls predict)," political analyst Alexei Makarkin said.
In the push to get out the vote, a technically legal - but democratically dubious - voting scheme has become a popular tool.
Before election day, people are told to go to their neighborhood polling station where they are registered to vote and pick up the certificate that will allow them to vote anywhere in the country.
It's a standard arrangement designed to make sure everyone has a chance to vote even if they will not be home on election day, but this year many who use these voting certificates will be doing so at the behest of their bosses.
Among them will be Yelena, a middle-aged teacher in St. Petersburg. She said the school administration told staff to get their certificates so they could all vote together Sunday at a polling station at the school, where they will be under the school director's supervision.
"They didn't tell us necessarily to vote for United Russia but you can read between the lines," Yelena said, willing to give only her first name out of fear of being fired.
Similar accounts have been given by teachers, doctors, factory workers and others around the country. Some have said they were warned they would lose their job if they did not comply.
Hundreds of people have called an elections hot line to complain about the use of the voting certificates, the Central Elections Commission said in a summary of the complaints posted on its Web site.
Some of the complaints came from hospital patients, who said they had been threatened with early discharge if they did not produce their certificates.
Central Elections Commission head Vladimir Churov said Tuesday that all efforts would be made to prevent voting violations through the use of the certificates, but election officials have not discouraged voters from using them.
Non-governmental organizations and opposition political parties also have reported receiving numerous complaints.
"It is unbelievable. The use of bureaucracy is on an unprecedented scale," said Marina Dashenkova of Golos, an election-monitoring group. "People are complaining that their bosses are forcing them to take the certificates and vote for whom they say."
The use of the voting certificates in this way is new, she said, and for the Kremlin achieves two objectives: By obtaining absentee ballots people are registered as voting even if the ballots are never cast, boosting turnout; and when they vote under the supervision of their bosses they are likely to vote "correctly."
Even though people can theoretically vote for the party they choose, many appear to have little faith that their ballot will remain secret.
People also have complained of being required to round up a certain number of votes for United Russia. Yelena, the St. Petersburg teacher, said she was told to compile a list of five relatives or friends casting ballots for Putin's party.
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