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Exclusive: At a Russian polling station, phantom voters cast ballots for the 'Tsar'

13 September 2017 - 35   - 0

VLADIKAVKAZ/IVNYA, Russia (Reuters) - At polling station no. 333 in the Russian city of Vladikavkaz, Reuters reporters only counted 256 voters casting their ballots in a regional election on Sunday.

People were voting across Russia in what is seen as a dress rehearsal for next year’s presidential vote. Kremlin candidates for regional parliaments and governorships performed strongly nationwide.

When the official results for polling station no. 333 were declared, the turnout was first given as 1,331 before being revised up to 1,867 on Tuesday. That is more than seven times higher than the number of voters counted by Reuters - with 73 percent of the votes going to United Russia, the party of President Vladimir Putin.

Election officials at the polling station said their tally was correct and there were no discrepancies.

Reuters reporters were there when the polls opened at 08:00 until after the official count had been completed. They saw one man, who said he was a United Russia election observer, approaching the ballot box multiple times and each time putting inside voting papers.

“We must ensure 85 percent for United Russia. Otherwise, the Tsar will stop providing us with money,” the man, Sergei Lyutikov, told a reporter, in an apparent reference to Putin.

Putin is the strong favorite to win re-election next year. Many voters credit him with restoring national pride. However, with the economy forecast to grow only 1 percent this year enthusiasm for Putin is not as strong as it has been. Political analysts say that could result in a weak election turnout.

Reuters reporters observed the vote at six polling stations on Sunday. At all six the reporters found discrepancies, of varying sizes, between the official vote tally and the number of voters the reporters counted.

The reporters were present for the entire voting day except for in one place where a reporter missed the start because they were initially not allowed in.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, responding to a Reuters request for comment, said: “On the whole, no one has any doubts about the legitimacy of the elections, not the observers, not journalists. There were some incidents, probably. After all, it’s a big country.”

”But neither we nor journalists have the right to describe something as a violation until the central election commission describes it as such,” he said.

“There were observers there. So in this case there probably should be complaints from them. So one needs to see if there were complaints from them.”

Russia’s central election commission, asked about the discrepancies witnessed by Reuters, did not immediately respond.

Ella Pamfilova, chair of the commission, told a news conference after polls closed that the irregularities that had been reported to her commission would be investigated.

United Russia’s party headquarters, in a statement sent to Reuters, said it gave no orders to anyone to stuff ballots or falsify results. It said all violations would be examined by election commissions and, if the law was broken, those responsible would be punished.

The six polling stations the Reuters reporters visited were in three regions but there were thousands of polling stations operating in Russia on Sunday so the events only offer a small snapshot of what happened.

Reuters reporters are unable to assess if such practices were widespread, or whether they had a material bearing on the outcome of the election.

Opinion polls consistently show that United Russia has more support than any other Russian party.

Golos, a non-governmental organization whose volunteers monitored the voting in 36 regions, said late on Monday it had received reports of 825 violations of election rules. They included multiple reports of inflated turnout figures and ballot-stuffing. However, the NGO said violations were down compared to previous elections.

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