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Opposition Says Kremlin Fails Democracy Pledge Test

City Duma elections at a Moscow polling station

City Duma elections at a Moscow polling station

MOSCOW (Reuters) -- Opposition candidates and election observers said significant violations in regional votes across Russia on October 11 showed President Dmitry Medvedev was failing to follow through on a promise to boost democracy.

Two months ago Medvedev said "new democratic times are beginning" in Russia and promised to break the near-monopoly of the Kremlin-backed United Russia party built up during the reign of predecessor turned prime minister Vladimir Putin.

But candidates in regional elections on October 11 said prohibitive entry requirements introduced under Medvedev and shrinking access to the media damaged the opposition's chances and allowed United Russia to sweep the polls.

"We hear pretty words, but the reality is very different," said Sergei Obukov, a senior member of the Communist Party.

Central Election Commission chief Vladimir Churov dismissed opposition complaints as "unacceptable hysterics," Interfax news agency reported.

Mayoral, regional, and district elections were held in 76 of Russia's 83 regions -- comprising 30 million voters -- and United Russia won "practically every race it ran in," top party official Boris Gryzlov told Interfax.

The opposition was particularly critical of the election to Moscow's council, which controls the city's $40-billion budget. United Russia had 63 percent of that vote with 13 percent counted, the Central Election Committee said.

'Uneven Playing Field'

Only one liberal opposition party, Yabloko, was registered for the party race, which decides 18 of the Moscow council's 35 seats. Early results gave it 5 percent, below the 7 percent barrier needed to maintain one of its two seats.

"Political competition has shrunk further in the past year," Yabloko leader Sergei Mitrokhin said after voting in Moscow. "The playing field is uneven. We don't have fair elections."

Pro-Western opposition parties say every one of their candidates was refused registration for the remaining 17 first past the post seats, most because some of the thousands of signatures provided for registration were deemed invalid.

Six parties registered for the October 11 Moscow vote, but the only posters in the city were for United Russia.

Independent poll watchdog Golos said it had reports that Moscow authorities were pressuring workers to vote to boost the turn-out and reported sporadic stuffing of ballot boxes.

"There were significant violations on the day and in the pre-election campaign," said Golos head Liliya Shibanova, citing the non-registration of candidates and curbs on canvassing.

"Medvedev says we need competition, we need a multi-party system, but election results show the exact opposite," she said.

Sixty-two percent of Muscovites polled by the Levada center described the vote as "simply an imitation of a battle" and said they expected the seats to be distributed by the authorities.

"Everything is decided in advance," said 28-year-old teacher Jay Komisarzhevskaya. "I haven't voted for almost 10 years." The Central Election Commission said turn-out in Moscow was around 35 percent, roughly the same as four years ago.

Medvedev's administration blamed local officials for the problems in Moscow, saying it had failed to convince Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, a prominent member of the ruling party, to liberalize elections. Luzhkov spokesman Sergei Tsoi declined to comment.

"Moscow authorities are not ready to live under new standards," Medvedev's chief spokeswoman Natalya Timakova told reporters this week. "We will continue encouraging them."