Putin presses mayors to boost election turnout

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MOSCOW, Oct 23 (Reuters) Russian President Vladimir Putin urged Russia's mayors today to encourage people to vote in a December 2 parliamentary election that Putin's party is expected to win with ease.

Analysts say that with victory for Putin's United Russia party almost assured, voter apathy could lead to a low turnout, depriving the Kremlin of the resounding endorsement it is seeking at the polls.

''Great responsibility lies with local administrations today when we have entered a pre-election period,'' Putin told several hundred mayors gathered for a congress in Moscow.

He asked them to ''create all the conditions so that as many Russians as possible can take part in the parliamentary election, given their great significance.'' Local mayors should ''impress on every citizen the political importance of exercising their vote.'' Since Russia abolished direct elections for regional governors, city mayors have become the most powerful regional officials accountable to voters instead of Putin.

Many have extensive local power bases that could be a crucial factor in getting out the vote.

''Turnout can be an issue as people can be passive supporters and often don't go because they know the result already,'' said Maria Lipman, analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank.

''For legitimacy reasons and to look more convincing, Putin wants a high turnout ... Technically (the mayors) are not part of the chain of command and he has to talk to them separately.'' Opinion polls give United Russia 54 per cent support, while its nearest rival, the Communist Party, has six per cent.

Putin will be in the Number one spot on his party's list of candidates, exploiting a loophole which allows officials to run for parliament but not take up their seats.

Analysts say Putin is running in the election to build a power base in parliament in preparation for leaving office next year, when his second term ends. Putin, 55, has said he plans to retain political influence beyond 2008.

Putin used his meeting with mayors to urge a crackdown on local business cartels, a problem officials partially blame for a sharp rise in the prices of staple foods like milk and bread.

''Local market monopolies, red tape and local civil servants' illegal fees for every certificate and signature create insurmountable barriers to developing business,'' Putin said.

Officials have said inflation will overshoot the government's target of eight per cent this year and head into double digits. Keeping a lid on inflation has been a key achievement of economic policy under Putin.

The mayors sitting in the hall gasped when Putin walked onto the stage and cheered and clapped after he spoke. They snapped photos of him on digital cameras and mobile phones and toasted him over wine and vodka before his arrival.

REUTERS GL HS2145

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