Opposition says Kremlin 'stacking deck' in Saint Petersburg vote

Marina KORENEVA
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Protests will be in vain: The Kremlin's man is tipped to win in Saint-Petersburg

A gaffe-prone acquaintance of President Vladimir Putin is expected Sunday to sail to victory in the Saint Petersburg gubernatorial vote in the absence of opposition following a controversial campaign.

The main competitor of the acting city chief Alexander Beglov, Vladimir Bortko of the Communist Party, suddenly withdrew his candidacy a week before the vote.

"I don't want to play these games," said the 73-year-old prominent Soviet-era filmmaker.

"There are five aces in the deck," he said.

Russians will vote in local polls across the country on Sunday, including in gubernatorial elections in 16 regions.

But the race for the governor's seat in Saint Petersburg has been the most controversial campaign outside Moscow where tens of thousands protested against the exclusion of opposition candidates from the ballot this summer.

Bortko, a Russian parliament lawmaker, said the "deck has been stacked" against him, accusing authorities of not playing fairly and preparing to rig the vote in Vladimir Putin's hometown.

But some opposition representatives claimed Bortko was in cahoots with the Kremlin and withdrew his candidacy under pressure after becoming a formidable rival.

Bortko himself said the Kremlin asked him not to quit the race.

Some observers had not excluded the possibility of a second round run-off between Beglov and Bortko, who directed "Heart of a Dog", the 1988 cult film based on Mikhail Bulgakov's novel.

Observers say that the authorities have pulled out all the stops to secure the 63-year-old acting governor's win.

Opposition representatives have been barred from the gubernatorial election in Saint Petersburg, which is home to five million people.

Supporters repeatedly took to the streets in protest, although on a much smaller scale than in Moscow. The city also holds municipal elections on Sunday.

Political analysts say the authorities only allowed Bortko to run to give the race a veneer of legitimacy.

"His role was to create the illusion of competition," said analyst Sergei Starovoitov.

"And now it is unclear how authorities will manage to legitimise the election."

- 'Trainings to rig vote' -

Bortko urged other candidates to quit the race, warning that authorities prepared to stuff the ballot box in favour of the incumbent.

Polling stations will be opened in neighbouring Leningrad and Pskov regions, making observing the voting there more difficult, experts said.

Opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported this week that some election officials in the city had been trained to enter fraudulent votes into ballot boxes "at the last minute."

The newspaper published an audio recording of what it said was a recent training session to back up the claim.

Beglov, who has served as the city's acting governor since last October, now faces little competition from the remaining two candidates: a member of the Just Russia party, Nadezhda Tikhonova, and local lawmaker Mikhail Amosov.

Throughout the campaign Beglov, a senior member of United Russia, has sought to distance himself from the increasingly unpopular ruling party, presenting himself as an independent.

During debates last month Beglov said he was the only candidate who did not belong to any political party.

Soon after Beglov's biography disappeared from the United Russia's website.

- 'Anyone but Beglov'-

The acting governor has been widely ridiculed for his embarrassing jokes and public missteps.

An investigative journalism project called Proyekt reported this week that even Kremlin officials made fun of him.

But in the absence of meaningful competition Beglov is expected to win the vote, analysts say.

"People will vote for Beglov because there is no choice," sociologist Maria Matskevich told AFP.

"Even if he is unpopular, for the electorate he is the only real candidate," she added.

The opposition has denounced the polls as a farce and top protest leader Alexei Navalny and others urged Saint Petersburgers to vote for anyone except Beglov.

"He constantly lies, and his lies are so ridiculous that he immediately gets caught," Navalny wrote on his blog.

Beglov has known Putin "since time immemorial" and "that's his only merit," Navalny said.

Boris Vishnevsky, one of the most popular Saint Petersburg opposition politicians who was not allowed to run, urged residents to vote against the "Kremlin vicar who cannot and does not know how to run a city."

Many said they would skip the vote altogether.

"These elections lack any suspense," said 30-year-old Semyon Petrov.