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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Parties of Power Skirmish in Samara

SAMARA -- The media and the pundits are billing Sunday's parliamentary elections in 14 regions as a dress rehearsal for the State Duma contest in December.

Nowhere is that analogy more apt than in Samara, where the region's most powerful politicians, Governor Konstantin Titov and Samara Mayor Viktor Tarkhov, are leading the two main pro-Kremlin parties into battle.

The rivalry between Titov's United Russia party and Tarkhov's A Just Russia has dominated a campaign otherwise focused on the sort of pocketbook issues -- pensions, salaries and welfare benefits -- common to any municipal or regional election.

And while the campaign has seen some nasty negative tactics, the voters in Samara do not seem to think that the result of Sunday's vote will have much impact on their daily lives.

"They're all a bunch of blowhards who talk a lot and do nothing," said Ilya, 43, an accountant in Samara who declined to give his last name.

"United Russia promises to raise pensions and salaries, but what's stopping them from going ahead and raising them now that they're in power?" Ilya said, adding that he had not made up his mind on whom to vote for on Sunday.

The streets of Samara, a city of some 1.2 million on the Volga River, were lined with billboards and strewn with banners ahead of Sunday's vote. Posters were pasted on lampposts, trees, fences and walls. Party activists were busy distributing leaflets to pedestrians.

But all of this was lost on Vitaly Razogreyev, 43, an engineer, who said he put little stock in the parties' campaign rhetoric. "Everyone promises the world, but no one ever does anything," he said. "I don't like any of the parties."

Most of the parties in the Samara election, including United Russia, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, the Communist Party and the Union of Right Forces, or SPS -- are focusing on social issues in their campaigns.

United Russia, the original so-called party of power, which is led at the national level by State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, has played the populist card with relish, promising to raise pensions by 10,000 rubles and salaries by up to 25,000 rubles.

"In the next three years, our task is to double the minimum monthly wage," United Russia candidate Viktor Sazonov told some 65 employees at the Samara-Lada automobile dealership.

Sazonov, current chairman of Samara's legislative assembly and No. 2 in his party's list after Titov for Sunday's election, was drumming up support in his home district.

Deputies to the legislative assembly will be elected by party lists for the first time this year. Deputies in the current 25-seat assembly all represent single-mandate districts.

The legislature will double in size to 50 deputies, half of them elected on party lists and half from single-mandate districts.

While United Russia was making promises, the second pro-Kremlin party, A Just Russia, led at the national level by Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov, has gone negative, spending most of its time attacking its chief rival.

A Just Russia has placed attack ads on billboards all over the city, with slogans such as: "The party of justice against a gang of embezzlers of public funds"; "Bureaucrats stop stealing!"; and "Politicians stop lying!"

In addition to control of the region's executive branch, United Russia is one of just two factions in the region's legislative assembly.

A Just Russia has also filed more complaints than any other party to the regional election commission, primarily concerning media coverage of its campaign, said Nikolai Rogozhin, deputy head of the commission.

Under a new law, state-owned media are required to provide equal coverage to all parties on the ballot. A Just Russia maintains that United Russia has received preferential treatment.

The fiercest ads in this campaign have been reserved for the personal battle between Titov and Tarkhov, however.

One typical billboard features a picture of the governor to one side and the mayor to the other. The caption under Titov's picture says: "Fifteen years in power, and [Titov's] son is a dollar millionaire."

Titov has served as head of the Samara region since 1991, when he was appointed by Boris Yeltsin.

Under Tarkhov's picture, by contrast, the billboard states: "100 days of justice, 250 million rubles returned to the city" -- an apparent reference to the mayor's push to restore to city ownership lands that had been privatized under former Mayor Georgy Limansky, a United Russia member.

Of the other major parties on the ballot in Samara, Vladimir Zhirinovsky's LDPR has run the slickest campaign, consisting of vague promises to improve the lives of Samara residents. The party's campaign literature vows to increase social spending by at least 20 percent and to bring down the price of land.

Local LDPR leader Mikhail Degtyaryov, 25, who is second in the party list after Zhirinovsky, said the party had 12 offices in the region and started working with voters well in advance of the vote.

The Communist Party has chosen to campaign on a platform of amending three of the national projects: health care, education and housing.

Nikolai Musatkin, acting head of the legislative assembly's social policy committee and number two in the party list, said the Communists would work to expand free medical services, restore free lunches for schoolchildren and provide welfare payments for poor families.

Three other parties will also contest Sunday's election: the Green Party, the SPS and the Patriots of Russia. Of the three, only the Greens have made a visible impact in the campaign-advertising race.

It is hard to know exactly how the parties are faring in advance of the vote because of a shortage of reliable polls.

A poll conducted by the independent Foundation for Social Studies puts United Russia far ahead of the pack with 43 percent of potential voters. A Just Russia comes a distant second with 22 percent, the LDPR third with 13 percent and the Communists fourth with 10 percent. The poll of 1,199 Samara region residents was conducted Feb. 21.

Under a change in Samara's election laws, voters will no longer be able to vote "against all" in Sunday's election. The minimum voter turnout has also been abolished.