Friday, June 12, 2009

Would this ever happen in America? We can hope so.

In a country where complaints of vote-rigging are common -- and commonly ignored -- Anton Chumachenko's stands out: The authorities say he won an election, but he insists he lost.

A first-time candidate for office and a member of Vladimir Putin's ruling United Russia party, Chumachenko won a seat on a local legislative council in St. Petersburg last month. Three weeks later, he publicly renounced his own victory, expressing disgust that votes had been falsified in his favor.

"I don't need this kind of victory!" the recent college graduate wrote in an open letter to residents. "I don't want to begin my political career with a cynical mockery of rights, laws and morality."

Chumachenko's stand took authorities by surprise and caused an uproar, challenging the nation's crooked electoral system in a way no member of the opposition could. But it also stunned the government's critics, many of whom could hardly believe that a young man who came of age in Putin's Russia might choose idealism over the cynicism that pervades politics there today.

Chumachenko said that he never considered accepting the falsified votes, but that he worried he might be punished if he objected. After the official results were published March 16, he consulted with the other United Russia candidates on his ticket. They agreed to back him if he spoke out. Four days later, he released his letter without notifying party superiors in advance, he said.

Chumachenko also pointed out problems in a neighboring precinct where the vote count had changed overnight and knocked out two independent candidates.

Chumachenko has provided evidence to the court and urged it to overturn the results. A ruling is pending. Meanwhile, prosecutors have sought to examine the original ballots. Election officials say they were damaged when a water pipe burst, an explanation that has been used before in Russia to stall investigations into election irregularities.

"We have very smart pipes," Chumachenko said with a grin. "They know exactly where to leak."

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