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30 Sep, 2007 04:21

Duma hopefuls woo homeless for votes

In two months' time Russians go to the polls in parliamentary elections that are expected to be the closest in years. The intense battle for votes has led to renewed interest in Russia's four million homeless people.

To complicate matters, the law says that voters must cast their ballots close to where they live.  This creates an obvious problem for people without homes. 

But now the Government wants to change this.

Election officials in the city of Khabarovsk are visiting areas where vagrants hang out, reminding them of the importance of casting their votes. Local officials plan to set up special polling booths to accommodate street people. They say they want to give the homeless another chance to begin a normal life. 

The initiative may bring benefits to other groups too. With turnout decreasing in every parliamentary election, officials make no secret that they want every voter they can get. 

Regions fear they'll lose their representative in Parliament if voter turnout is insufficient.

While in Khabarovsk officials are just calling on the homeless to be responsible citizens, in Moscow street people have already become an election force.

A group of homeless people staged a rally in Moscow calling on the opposition leader Garry Kasparov to run for president. However, most of the campaigners didn't know the name of Kasparov’s party or the date of the election. Mr Kasparov’s press secretary said the rally was part of a smear campaign targeted at the political opposition. 

A similar march took place at the convention of another opposition party, the Union of Right Forces. Again, the party members say that the homeless were paid to discredit the party through a fake show of support. 

However, the Union of Right Forces may not itself be whiter than white.  It has been accused of bribing voters. A regional court found it guilty of exchanging cash for votes in recent elections. 

While most of the protesters said they came out on their own initiative, experts believe their vulnerability make the homeless easy pray for politicians. Maria Khokhlova, who spent years helping homeless people, says the loss of a home shouldn't stop people from being citizens. But whether vagrants can make a free and educated choice in a polling station, and at what cost, remains a big question. 

“The homeless get involved not because they want to exercise their civil rights but because they need money. Before inviting them to take part in the elections, it’d be nice to clean and feed them. That would give them a choice,” says Maria Khokhlova.

Public opinion polls
Meanwhile, the latest opinion polls suggest the election turnout could reach around 49 per cent and show that two thirds of respondents trust Russia's electoral system.
According to the polls, if elections were held this Sunday the United Russia party would win a landslide victory, with 47 per cent of respondents backing the pro-Putin party.
In second place was the Communist Party with 7 per cent.
Around 15 per cent of respondents were undecided and roughly the same number said they would not be casting a vote.