MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian lawmakers approved legislation on Wednesday that will revive elections of regional leaders, but Kremlin opponents said the bill will give President-elect Vladimir Putin and his allies too much power over who is allowed to run.
Putin abolished elections of provincial leaders as part of what critics called a rollback of democracy during his 2000-2008 presidency, appointing them instead to give him greater control over far-flung corners of the world’s biggest country.
Restoring regional elections is part of a bid to please Russians fed up with their lack of political power and appease foes who staged the biggest opposition protests of Putin’s 12-year rule in recent months.
But the bill, passed by a narrow margin in the lower house of parliament where the ruling United Russia party has a slim majority, requires candidates to have support from local legislators or government officials to run.
It also allows the president to hold “consultations” with potential candidates or parties proposing them if he wishes - a detail opposition politician Boris Nemtsov said was tantamount to giving Putin control over who gets on the ballot.
“There’s nothing left of governors’ elections but horns and hooves. The name remains, but there will be no real elections,” Nemstov, a protest organiser and ex-deputy prime minister, said by telephone.
“It’s clear that the opposition will not be let into these elections,” he said, calling the requirements “insurmountable” for much of the opposition because of United Russia’s dominance of politics nationwide, despite declining popular support.
Putin, who has been prime minister since 2008 but is seen as the senior partner in a tandem with President Dmitry Medvedev, returns to the nation’s top office for a six-year term on May 7 after winning a presidential vote in March.
He has called for political forces to bury their differences after tens of thousands of people attended protests sparked by anger over alleged fraud in the December parliamentary election, but opponents say his concessions fall short.
“Putin’s aim is not to restore competition, debates and rival programmes, it is to hold onto power at all costs,” Nemtsov said.
The turnout at protests fell after Putin’s presidential victory, but opponents are planning new demonstrations before his inauguration, and are focusing on local elections and causes in a bid to chip away at Putin’s power.
The bill is expected to win approval from the upper house, after which it would go to the president to be signed into law.
Additional reporting by Nastassia Astrasheuskaya; Editing by Tim Pearce