Prime Minister Vladimir Putin made a surprising confession on New Year’s Eve, promising that the present he’d like to place under the fir tree for the holidays would be a fair presidential election in March 2012.
In a gesture intended to show election transparency and boost his legitimacy, the prime minister earlier suggested installing webcams at each of the country’s 96,000 precincts.
But experts are skeptical about the effectiveness of the new initiative – and whether it will turn out to be sincere. “It’s just a nice way to divvy up the 14 billion ruble pie,” Andrei Buzin, department director at Golos, an independent election monitor, told The Moscow News. Buzin, whose organization came under fire from national television during the parliamentary elections, was referring to state funds allocated towards transparency measures at polling stations.
Webcams and transparent ballot boxes were being purchased starting Wednesday in line with pledges by Putin.
Earlier this week Buzin published an analysis in Vedomosti pointing out the main flaws of the current election system.
“I don’t think forgers will do their dirty job in front of webcams,” Buzin wrote.
“There are lots of more convenient places for that, for example, territorial election commissions, where they can just make a new protocol of a lower-level commission.” Buzin emphasized that the main flaw in the elections process is indirect fraud – a lack of competition and the use of government leverage. Most of the members of local election commissions work in government-funded sectors and often face threats of losing their job if they fail to ensure the “right” vote results.
Buzin believes that the only effective way to fight vote fraud is to have enough election observers with full access to monitor what election commission members are doing.
Opposition parties and movements are recruiting monitors, some of whom are even eager to work for free. The leader of the Demokratichesky Vybor (Democratic Choice) movement, Vladimir Milov, expects to cover 3,000 to 5,000 polling stations, while last time his organization had a staff of only 1,000 monitors.
Ilya Yashin, a leader of the Solidarnost movement, told The Moscow News that “monitors are the only effective means for us to control what’s going on at a polling station.”
“You can’t switch [a person] off like a webcam,” Yashin said.
Andrei Buzin agrees. “Unlike a webcam, a monitor can look around and knows of a great deal of fraud schemes.”
But according to Buzin, an observer’s independence is precisely what makes him so unwanted at polling stations, where many were kicked out without any legal basis in the recent elections.
Golos has launched additional training courses for future monitors to teach them to use a camera properly and post their files on the Golos’ Map of Violations portal, from where information can be accessed publicly, Golos CEO Lilia Shibanova told The Moscow News, adding that an increasing number of partners have been joining the project recently.
Buzin has been urging election authorities to ban the practice of kicking out election observers from polling stations. “An amendment on illegal eviction of observers to the Penal Code could save the budget 14 billion rubles because an observer will record everything on his camera at his own expense.”
The expert’s view has been supported by presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov, who wrote in his blog that kicking out an election observer should be treated as a crime. The oligarch also welcomed the prime minister’s initiative to equip polling stations with webcams.
The chief of the Central Election Commission, Vladimir Churov, believes that vote transparency can be ensured through the use of webcams and transparent ballot boxes, which will be installed at two-thirds of polling stations.
In an interview with Ekho Moskvy radio last week, Churov highlighted that courts do not necessarily need to consider evidence recorded by observers. He also remarked that if an observer’s removal “was not documented, it can’t be considered removal.”
“If a monitor is filming secretly without notifying the election commission chief, it’s a violation,” Churov said.
Lilia Shibanova told The Moscow News that there are no provisions in the law that oblige an observer to notify an election commission chief.
“How does Mr. Churov imagine that? A monitor should ask ‘Would you mind if I film your ballot rigging?’” Shibanova said.
According to Buzin, election legislation makes it possible for certified protocols to be rewritten. “This explains why there are so many cases where the figures stated in the protocols that observers have differ from those of the Central Election Commission. Evidence and common sense notwithstanding, courts refuse to cancel the vote at precincts where this is the case.”
Buzin also stressed that no one has ever been brought to justice for refusing to give an observer a copy of a protocol or for giving a false copy, which is one of the common violations that give courts grounds to dismiss a vote fraud lawsuit. In late December two Moscow district courts ruled that protocol copies presented by observers showing that United Russia had received fewer votes than election authorities claimed were “trial copies,” dismissing the evidence.
According to Buzin, one of the most crucial stages of the vote count process are carried out in separate rooms that observers have no access to at all – and that those are precisely the places where much of the rigging can take place.
So far, the Central Election Commission has ignored Golos’ proposals to improve legislation and the voting system.