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Russia: Kremlin's Choice Fails To Win First Round In St. Petersburg Vote

Russia's second city of St. Petersburg went to the polls yesterday to elect a new governor. With 49 percent of the ballots, the Kremlin's choice, Valentina Matviyenko, failed to win in the first round.

Moscow, 22 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- It was a lot, but not enough. In spite of massive campaigning, former Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matviyenko failed to win the post of governor of St. Petersburg in the first round of elections yesterday.

Matviyenko was heavily supported by the Kremlin ahead of the vote. Posters of her and Russian President Vladimir Putin covered St. Petersburg. Matviyenko's most serious potential opponent, former St. Petersburg mayor Vladimir Yakovlev, had dropped out of the race to take a cabinet post.

Carnegie Foundation analyst Nikolai Petrov specializes in the Russian regions. He says the result is a failure for the Kremlin.

"This is quite a unique case -- when the Kremlin made colossal efforts, cleaning out the political scene beforehand, adapting the calendar to suit its candidate, putting everything it can into this campaign -- to the point of putting in the president in violation of the electoral legislation. So the result is not only a big failure, but a failure for all to see," Petrov said.

"It's something you just don't do here," St. Petersburg journalist Vladimir Kovalev said over the phone last week, commenting on pre-electoral scandals involving Putin's very public support of Matvienko.

Indeed, residents of St. Petersburg like to be seen as quiet, discreet, and more refined than the caricature of the over-bearing Muscovite. So the Kremlin's arm-twisting techniques to get the city to vote for the "right" candidate was widely perceived as another lead-footed attempt by Moscow to impose its way. Although originally from St. Petersburg, Matviyenko was dubbed "Mos-viyenko."

Anna Markova placed second in the election, winning about 16 percent. She was a relatively obscure deputy governor until she attacked Matviyenko in court three weeks ago for appearing on television with Putin -- a broadcast Markova denounced as "illegal campaigning." Markova's complaint was refused by the Supreme Court on 19 September, two days before the vote.

Markova and Matviyenko meet in a run-off in two weeks.

Some 11 percent of those taking part in the vote refused to support any of the candidates, opting instead for the "against all" box on the ballot.

Vladimir Pribylovski, a political scientist with the Panorama think tank, has studied the "against all" vote in detail.

"Ten percent of people voting 'against all' has become the normal result. It's like the average usual disappointment of the voters with what the authorities, the opposition has to offer. People don't want to vote for the communists, they don't want to vote for the party of power, they don't see the [democratic opposition] Yabloko and Union of Rightist Forces as an alternative," Pribylovski said.

Pribylovski himself advocates voters choose the "against all" option when they don't like the candidates. He says it can be effective in fighting the bureaucracy in cases where one candidate is favored.

According to Russia's election law, if the "against all" vote comes in first, the ballot is cancelled. Since 1999 more than half a dozen ballots have been voided because of this.

It's not clear if the trend to vote "against all" is increasing or not. Petrov says the trend will probably remain marginal.

"There are such cases [of when elections have been overturned], but you can't say it's been growing steadily since 1989. [Such a vote] happened in the more democratic regions because such reactions reflect voters' relatively high political culture," Petrov says.

In fact, the "against all" vote even had the Central Election Commission worried. In the aftermath of the first high "against all" turn-outs in 1999 and 2000, Central Election Commission chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov slammed the "against all" vote as "illegal."