June 29, 2005

Russia moves closer to election law changes

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's parliament on Wednesdayapproved on second reading a raft of amendments to electionrules, which critics say would further tighten the Kremlin'sgrip on power if implemented. If introduced, the changes,proposed by President Vladimir Putin, would ban politicalparties merging into blocs to stand in elections and scrap the"against all" option, used as a protest vote, on ballot papersin regional polls.

Putin has been accused by opponents and some Westerngovernments of endangering democracy through sweeping politicalreforms he said were needed after last year's deadly Beslanschool siege carried out by Chechen rebels. "From June 29 anyelections held in Russia can only be called elections inquotation marks," said opposition deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov."Election law has been rewritten to suit the needs of theauthorities," he said.

The changes to the election law follow Putin's abolition ofgubernatorial elections to make regional leaders Kremlinappointees instead.

New rules on elections to the State Duma lower house ofparliament and on forming political parties -- whicheffectively bar small parties and independent candidates fromthe chamber -- have already been passed by legislators.

Putin says reform is needed to create more effectiveinstruments for governing his sprawling country which stretchesacross 11 time zones.

The latest amendments to the election law must pass a thirdreading before being sent for approval to the FederationCouncil upper house of parliament, after which Putin must signthem into law.

The Kremlin-controlled United Russia party holds two thirdsof seats in the Duma, enough to pass legislationsingle-handedly.