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In shadow of train blast, Russia gears up for polls

Moscow, Dec. 6 (Reuters): Russia tightened security at polling booths, train stations and markets today ahead of elections overshadowed by a commuter-train bombing which killed at least 42 people near rebel Chechnya.

President Vladimir Putin’s party, running on a strong law and order platform, is expected to make gains in tomorrow’s poll due to a weak and divided Opposition, but it was unclear if the attack in southern Russia would affect voting patterns.

Many analysts have said politicians feared low levels of turnout in the former Soviet state of 145 million people, after colourless campaigning has failed to catch imaginations.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a human rights body grouping 55 member states, said pre-election campaigning was marred by pro-Kremlin bias in the media — particularly across state-owned television.

At least 150 people were also wounded when yesterday’s suspected suicide bombing ripped through the packed train in southern Russia. Justice minister Yuri Chaika pointed the finger at Chechen separatist guerrillas, but they denied involvement.

Today investigators combed the area for clues to who was behind the attack as officials boosted security. Russia’s election chief said “unprecedented measures” would be taken to ensure every Russian could cast their vote. “I am convinced that the measures which the security structures take — and in Moscow they will be unprecedented — will secure the safety of all election stations which will be organising the vote tomorrow,” Alexander Veshnyakov, head of the Central Election Commission, said. “This will happen not just in Moscow but across Russia.”

The election, in which voting starts first in the farthest east of Russia’s 11 time zones, is seen as a popularity test for Putin who will face a presidential poll in March next year. The former KGB spy hopes to gain his first majority in the chamber.

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