Muscovites voted for the Russian capital's city council Sunday in a ballot seen in part as a bellwether for parliamentary elections due in 2007 following sweeping political changes pushed by President Vladimir Putin.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the city of 10 million people has directly elected its mayors. Under recently enacted Putin reforms, however, the president picks the mayor, and the Moscow City Duma can approve or reject the choice.
With his term expiring in two years, Mayor Yury Luzhkov is widely believed to be trying ensure that his loyalists get into the City Duma in order to protect his allies in city government and business.
The Kremlin-backed ruling party United Russia was leading the field with 48 percent of vote according to early returns, with Communists and the liberal coalition trailing it with 17 and 11 percent respectively, the city election commission said, according to the RIA Novosti, Interfax and ITAR-Tass news agencies.
More than 430 candidates were competing for the Duma's 35 seats in Sunday's vote, which will also test the electoral strength of democrats, nationalists and communists with less than two years remaining before the next parliamentary elections.
After polls closed, the city election officials said that about 34 percent of Moscow's 6.9 million eligible voters cast ballots. A turnout of at least 20 percent was needed to make the vote valid.
Putin's political reforms, enacted following a series of terrorist attacks, have greatly strengthened the Kremlin's role in the country's political life, as well as the hand of the Kremlin-backed ruling party, United Russia, which dominates the federal legislature.
How the country's two main liberal parties fare at the polls is also being closely watched. The Yabloko and Union of Right Forces parties, who have merged forces under a joint slate for the city vote, suffered a crushing defeat in the 2003 parliamentary election and their showing in the Moscow election will gauge the democrats' popularity in advance of the parliamentary elections.
Alexander Anashkevich, an 85-year-old disabled veteran who gets by on a 11,000-ruble (US$380; Ђ320) monthly pension, complained about the new political system that gives Putin to right to name Moscow's mayor.
"We can't vote for the person we want, but only the one the president tells us to vote for," he said outside one polling station. "That's not good."
He voted for United Russia because he said there was no other choice: "Whoever is elected after Luzhkov will dance to the Kremlin's tune."
Pensioner Nelya Ivanovna said she was disillusioned because election authorities struck the nationalist party Rodina (Homeland) from the ballot, along with the option of voting against all candidates. "You know, I hoped that maybe someone would be honest and would tell the truth about what we think today, that we're unhappy with so much," she said.
With the city awash in campaign billboards, leaflets and TV and radio spots, the election campaign was roiled when Rodina was barred from the race for running a TV ad that appeared to denigrate migrants from the Caucasus.
The Russian capital is by far the wealthiest region in the nation, accounting for up to 20 percent of the entire economy and attracting the biggest share of foreign direct investment. In the past decade, the city has shed its Soviet drabness and turned into a glittering, crowded metropolis.
"Muscovites are very active in elections," said Natalya Novikova, an election official monitoring voting at one polling station. "Moscow has become so much more beautiful. People want it to get better, not worse.", AP reported. V.A.
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