United Russia dominates airwaves

MOSCOW — Russia’s leading state broadcaster is planning blanket coverage of Sunday’s nationwide parliamentary elections, which the Kremlin has cast as a referendum on President Vladimir Putin’s rule.

State owned First Channel plans to air extra news bulletins at 6 a.m., 10 a.m. and 12 noon and a election special starting at 9 p.m. just as the last polls close across Russia.

Judging by recent television news coverage of political issues, criticism of widely reported electoral fraud and intimidation is likely to be lacking from Russian television coverage Sunday.

Preparations for the State Duma elections have been widely criticized this week as fraudulent, with reports in the Western press and on Russian Internet chat sites of students, civil servants and other state workers being told to vote for Kremlin-loyalist party United Russia or face reprisals.

The Kremlin sees television as a crucial ally in increasing the vote for United Russia, the success of which, observers believe, will be used by Putin to maintain a national leadership role after his second term as president expires March 2008.

Under the Russian constitution he is banned for running for a third consecutive term, although returning to power after the brief tenure of an interim president is not explicitly ruled out.

Putin — whose personal popularity ratings nudge 80% — heads the voting list for United Russia, although he is not a member of the party.

The party normally garners around 35% of the vote but recent changes to Russia’s proportional representation system — including increasing the threshold for gaining seats from 5% to 7% of all votes cast — are expected to increase that.

Figures released Friday show that national television stations have virtually excluded mention of opposition parties with overwhelming coverage this week given to Putin and senior Kremlin figures.

The top three national channels, pubcasters the First Channel and Rossiya, and NTV — which is not in state ownership but rarely strays from the Kremlin line — devoted more than 50 minutes of coverage to Putin, Russian prime minister Viktor Zubkov, and deputy prime ministers Dmitri Medved and Sergei Ivanov, all of whom are potential successors when Putin stands down as president next March.

The figures, published in business newspaper Kommersant — considered on of the few largely independent dailies remaining in Russia — showed that Putin took the lion’s share with 33 minutes.

Other observers say Putin and United Russia take up even more airtime.

Communist party analysis puts television coverage of United Russia at 66%, the Communists 6% and that of nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democrat Party of Russia at 7%.

Last month, Russia’s Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations gauged First Channel coverage of Putin and the Kremlin at 77% of all political coverage and a further 16.5% for United Russia. Just under 2% went to the state electoral commission, leaving less than 5% for all other parties combined.

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