Voting at the Buffet

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Ever since the first elections to the Supreme Soviet in 1937 under the Stalinist Constitution, buffets at polling places have been an integral part of the election process. My earliest recollection of these heavily discounted buffets was in the 1970s, when I accompanied my parents as they "fulfilled their civic duty" on election day. The spread usually included foods that were not always available in stores on a regular basis, such as mandarin oranges and sandwiches, and they were sold at bargain prices. In this way, the authorities tried to create a holiday atmosphere of sorts.

Voters never questioned whether the buffets represented an attempt to "buy their votes," although nobody ever voted against the candidates on the ballot anyway. Sure, some were motivated by fear, but I am certain that most went along with the program out of a desire to conform. In some ways, the buffet itself symbolized people's willingness to conform.

Buffets at voting stations were also used to attract voters during Boris Yeltsin's presidency. At that time, according to election law, if the minimum voter turnout was not met, elections would have been deemed invalid.

Thanks to some swift changes in the election law last year, the minimum voter turnout requirement was abolished. Nevertheless, the tradition of buffets at polling stations still remain, and they were in full force during State Duma elections on Sunday. It seems that the authorities once again tried to create a holiday atmosphere. In addition, there were live concerts at many polling places around the country, and voters in the Kemerovo region were even treated to free blood-pressure checks.

The buffet election tradition links the Soviet past with the present. So what has changed over the decades? We often hear that little in Russia has changed, that the people are showing a strong desire to return to the Soviet past -- to its "stability," its single-party system with a strong general secretary-like national leader, its state-run economy and, yes, its meaningless, predetermined elections.

It would have been strange if United Russia did not manage to win these elections by a wide margin, given the current 7 percent annual growth in the economy and significant salary increases in many regions. United Russia's win was virtually guaranteed.

I think the only group that could have put up serious competition to United Russia in the Duma elections would have been a nationalist party headed up by someone like Dmitry Rogozin, who formerly led Rodina before being pushed out. In early November, Rogozin was sent into "honorable exile" as Russia's emissary to NATO in Brussels. All of the remaining opposition, including Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces, appeared poorly organized and, even worse, ideologically weak.

By heading the United Russia ticket, President Vladimir Putin was able to mobilize enormous government administrative resources. Moreover, the Putin factor was the driving motive behind widespread violations by local authorities, both in the run-up to the elections, as well as on election day itself.

In contrast to Soviet times, however, when buffets were set up at voting stations this time around, nobody was trying to achieve a 99 percent voter turnout or win 99 percent of the vote for the ruling party. Now 60 percent is adequate in both cases. Nobody is trying to be secretive about the countless violations to the electoral law such as the misuse of absentee ballots, the strong-armed tactics used to bring busloads of students to the polls, the barring of international observers and stuffing the boxes with already-completed ballots.

Much has been said about widespread violations by United Russia in using the media and other resources to their own advantage during the campaign. But what is most amazing is that even the most obvious abuses do not seem to bother most voters. According to a survey conducted by the Levada Center in mid-November, two-thirds of the people polled did not believe that it was possible to hold fair elections in this country. They seem to accept this circumstance as an inevitable fact of Russian life, even though the same survey found that 70 percent feel it is important that elections be honest and democratic. How is it possible to explain this paradox? Is it due to society's cynicism? To people's indifference to politics? To the electorate's lack of belief in its own ability to have an impact on the political process?

It may be that people accept elections in Russia precisely for what they are -- little more than a superficial, government-sponsored ceremony that is organized every four years.

Indeed, the elections give the authorities a nice opportunity to create the semblance that the government is "bonding" with the people by graciously providing them a pleasant holiday buffet while the citizens fulfill their civil duties on election day.

Georgy Bovt is a political analyst and hosts a radio program on City FM.