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Russians fear fraud in parliament elections

An election official carried a preelection leaflet at a polling station ahead of Sunday's parliamentary elections in the village of Gusino, outside Smolensk, western Russia on Saturday. Sergei Grits/Associated Press

TOGLIATTI, Russia — The elderly voter out walking her Scottie in the rain last week in Togliatti, the home of the infamous Lada automobile, was delighted to encounter an opposition candidate distributing pamphlets that called on President Vladimir Putin to step down.

“Where have you been?” she fairly shrieked, grabbing a handful of the leaflets from Vitaly Yerkaev, 41, a beefy former homicide detective running for parliament in the People’s Freedom Party, or Parnas. “I was not sure that Parnas was even part of the election here.”

That Parnas would be just about invisible is not surprising.

Throughout the campaign, most printing houses rejected Yerkaev’s leaflets, and newspapers rejected his ads. The local government banned his posters and blocked him from television appearances mandated by law. “All we can do is put on our party T-shirts and hand out leaflets, that is it,” he said.

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“We should have at least one alternative democratic party, but they don’t allow anything,” said the woman, who asked that she be identified only as Larisa for fear of a visit from agents with Russian state security, the FSB.

Russians go to the polls Sunday to vote for a new 450-seat parliament, or Duma, which Putin long ago reduced to a cheerleading squad that endorses his every move.

The Kremlin has repeatedly promised that the voting will be free and transparent, yet the campaign here in Togliatti, long a bastion of opposition to the dominant United Russia Party, illustrates the gap between the promise of fair elections and the reality.

Without doubt, Kremlin administrators want the voting to be seen as fair and free. They want to exorcise the ghosts of the last Duma vote, in 2011, and the 2012 presidential election, when widespread perceptions of fraud galvanized mass street protests by the middle class.

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More important, any suggestion that the election was stolen would interfere with their paramount concern: the 2018 presidential election.

Now 63, and seeking his fourth and quite possibly last presidential term, Putin wants to capitalize on his soaring popularity to win a resounding victory that will cement his legacy.

The Kremlin even appointed a respected human-rights advocate, Ella A. Pamfilova, to head the Central Electoral Commission. She warned local officials that suspect results would be nullified, a position endorsed by Vyacheslav Volodin, a senior Putin political adviser who will probably be the next Duma chairman.

“I tell them that 99 percent is no longer in vogue,” Pamfilova said at a news conference, referring to her discussions with local governors over the vote.

Apparently not everyone got the memo.

Opposition candidates and political analysts in the Samara region, which includes Togliatti and which Pamfilova referred to as “the most difficult spot,” said the governor, Nikolai I. Merkushkin, appeared to be one of those who did not.

In speeches and an election pamphlet prepared by his team, he cast the blame for Russia’s economic woes not on economic mismanagement or Western sanctions after the annexation of Crimea but on a plot by President Obama and the CIA to undermine Russia.

Opposition candidates are a fifth column on the payroll of the State Department and part of the scheme, the pamphlet said, along with the collapse in oil prices and the emergence of the Islamic State.

Putin is on the case, not least by rebuilding the military, the pamphlet said, noting that “our country forces others to take it seriously and this is something that American politicians don’t like very much.”

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Merkushkin exploits fears in other ways, too, warning people in Togliatti not to come crying to him for help after the election if they vote against United Russia. “You yourselves will have made it so that we aren’t doing anything for the people,” he said.

Division heads in Togliatti’s automobile factory have told workers the same thing, said Pyotr Zolotaryov, a Duma candidate and the head of a shriveling independent union. “They said: ‘If you vote for United Russia, the factory will continue working. If you don’t, it will get shut down,’ ” he said.

For the most part, the tactic works, analysts said, because people in Togliatti do not connect Putin and his policies to their problems.

“Such a simple explanation that Obama is to blame works well given the problems people face that they don’t understand,” Zolotaryov said.

The main election issue is the fate of the Avtovaz car plant, maker of the Lada and a symbol of withered Soviet industrial muscle.

In the post-Soviet era, demand for the boxy rattletraps plunged ruinously in the face of foreign competition. As car sales stagnated, production here sank to 352,000 cars last year from 575,000 in 2014. Not many years ago, more than 1 in 7 people in this town of about 700,000 worked building cars. The plant now employs 43,000 on reduced shifts, driving the lowest wages down to as little as $150 a month.

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Togliatti’s fate rides on the car plant, so Duma candidates vow to rejuvenate it even though Renault-Nissan now runs it.

The Communists won 29 percent of the vote here in 2011, against 26 percent for United Russia. The Communist Party forms part of the loyal opposition that rarely challenges Putin, yet nostalgia for Soviet times casts it as an alternative. The party is expected to make gains across Russia this year given the sullen mood over the economy.

The race in Togliatti remains unpredictable. The Communists certainly enjoy support, but so does Putin, especially when it comes to Russia’s overall image.

“People like what happened in foreign policy in recent years,” said Alexander Gremin, a local political journalist. “People like it that we can bomb Syria. People like that the candidates in the US elections say that Putin can influence the vote there. We feel that we are a superpower again that reaches beyond its immediate borders.”