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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Free TV Spots Bring Elections to Life

The election campaign sprang to life on Friday as the first of 28 parties jockeying for seats in parliament next month presented their first free advertisements on national television.

The presentations, ranging from the stumbling to the slick, enlivened the contest viewed as a dress rehearsal for next June's big prize - a presidentialelection to replace Kremlin leader Boris Yeltsin.

A post-Soviet innovation was also launched: television debates, limited to 15-minute contests in the morning and evening pitting two or three hopefuls against each other.

The campaign for 450 seats in the State Duma, parliament's lower house, has so far been overshadowed by Russia's military advance through Chechnya and by what journalists say is uncertainty over rules governing their pre-election conduct.

Half the 450 seats will be decided by nationwide party lists. The free spots aim to put colorful outsiders on an equal footing with opinion-poll favorites like the Communist Party, the center-left Fatherland-All Russia bloc of former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, the liberal Yabloko party and groups allied to Yeltsin and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

"Vote for list No. 22. It's surely the best," a balding man sang to a jazz ditty promoting the obscure All-Russia Political Party of the People, the first of six presentations.

The small Social Democratic Party chose a more formal approach with a leader promising from behind a desk to restore Russians' pride.

The Conservative Party of Russia, admirers of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, opted for the same, telling voters to shun "revolutions, zig-zags and Marxist-Leninist nonsense."

But it exploited its position as No.1 on the ballot. "Just pick up your ballot and you'll see us straight away," it said.

An ecologist viewed drugs as the biggest threat to Russia in decades and said "normal countries" elected environmentalists.

Greater sophistication came from the Union of Right Forces in a brief video featuring its youthful pro-market leader Boris Nemtsov in a business-like pose.

Also slick was a Communist montage of sound bites of rivals denouncing the party and a slogan: "Why are they afraid of us?"

Informal campaigning has been under way for months, with attention focused on Sunday talk shows. Some channels air unflattering reports on candidates opposing their favorites.

Some journalists say they have yet to shift campaign coverage into top gear due to the focus on the Chechnya campaign and the uncertainty over electoral laws.

"Chechnya has definitely been a factor. It is clear to anyone wanting to keep their readership or viewing audience that coverage critical of the conflict is not popular," said Sergei Parkhomenko, editor of weekly magazine Itogi.

"Restrictions can sometimes take the form of a zealous visit by tax inspectors. The Central Election Commission clearly wants to take on a political role and this is not right."

The commission disagrees and says free air time and checks on program content show the system works.

"For many years, no checks of any sort were made into whether media election practices were correct. Now all we ask is that laws be observed," commission member Sergei Danilenko said.

"We have received about 60 complaints of campaign violations. Some have been upheld. You'll find that our law is very easy in terms of what it allows the media. There are few restrictions."