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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Petersburg Poll Turns to Farce

ST. PETERSBURG -- Candidates howled angrily and voters yawned in boredom as preliminary vote counts released Tuesday for St. Petersburg's local elections showed barely enough of a turnout to validate the poll.


But after apathetic voters stayed away from the polls despite a special extension of the voting deadline Monday, elections for St. Petersburg's City Assembly were looking like a total fiasco.


The local electoral commission released preliminary results saying that 25.6 of the city's voters had taken part in the vote, just above the 25 percent minimum for validating the polls. First results from the 1,700 polling stations were due to be released late Tuesday.


Had the election failed, it would have been carried over to the fall -- leaving Russia's second largest city politically crippled and without a city budget for half a year. The election had been scheduled for one day, Sunday, but when polls closed at 10 P.M., only 22 percent of the city's electorate had voted.


In an 11th-hour effort to head off an invalid vote, Mayor Anatoly Sobchak rewrote the elections rules, sending his assistant, Valery Malishev, on local television to announce that the polls would stay open again Monday.


The last-minute move left many unprepared, including the electoral commission, which heard the news on the radio.


The commission was then only partially successful in contacting polling stations in the city's 50 voting districts. Some had already opened ballot boxes to count votes, and when they heard the elections would be extended, left the boxes open and unguarded all night.


Monday morning dawned to further confusion. A second Sobchak decree widened the franchise: initially students and army draftees temporarily based in St. Petersburg had been forbidden from voting, but on Monday they were being frantically summoned to the polls.


"You know soldiers, they get the order to vote, they salute and they move out," said Yevgenny Baklagin, a member of the Elections Commission.


Cars with loudspeakers cruised city streets Monday, urging people to vote. Those pleas were echoed by Mayor Sobchak, who told evening television viewers they must "contribute their share in governing the city." Aterwards Sobchak flew to Moscow, for an emergency meeting with Sergei Filatov, Boris Yeltsin's chief of staff.


These desperate measures brought the city the needed 25 percent -- but just barely. An hour before polls closed Monday the total was 24.99 percent. By closing time, a last-minute wave of 2,500 voters provided the necessary amount.


But by changing the rules on the run, Sobchak stripped the election of all legitimacy in the eyes 10 of the 16 parties and the city prosecutor's office, all of whom have announced they will challenge the decision.


Moreover, the elections are two-tiered: in two weeks, voters will be asked to vote again to choose from the top two vote-getters in each district.


Monday and Tuesday candidates descended on the Elections Commission. Sobchak's rules changes were merely the latest and largest of many complaints.


A sheaf of written complaints was filed against the city's main newspaper, The St. Petersburg Bulletin, which Friday endorsed a list of candidates based upon, in part, alleged evaluations of their psychological and physical health.


A letter signed by 10 of the 16 parties complained that access to television and radio spots had been denied to "the majority of campaign blocs and independent candidates."


A contributing factor to the apathy may have been that only two of the 16 parties contesting the elections, Communists and Vladimir Zhirnovsky's Liberal Democratic Party, were well-known.


Sobchak has had complaints of his own, charging that many candidates to the City Assembly were "representatives of the criminal world who are trying to move into politics."


The mayor accused two police officers running for the assembly of demanding signatures from passers-by as they patrolled city streets in uniform.


Voters were no doubt turned off by the campaign's low tone. In some voting stations Sunday, fewer voters turned out by noon than there were candidates on the ballot. That remarkable feat of apathy was repeated Monday at Polling Station No. 31 -- located across the street from the City Assembly. Only 10 people had turned up by noon to choose one candidate from a ballot of 19.


Voting did have some perks. According to NTV-Inform, a local newscast, sausages were being sold Sunday for cheap prices outside a meat-packing factory whose director is a candidate for city office, which along with cheap chicken wings elsewhere, have cause a headache for Election Commission.


"The sausages and chicken-legs are hard to sort out," said Baklagin. "What constitutes a criminally low price? I'm not even sure what the going rate for chicken legs is these days."