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#5 - JRL 7060
February 12, 2003
Desperate rightists turn to children for support
Boris Sapozhnikov, Maria Tsvetkova

For the first time in Russian history children may be able to cast their votes at the parliamentary elections in December 2003. Two Duma deputies have put forward an amendment to the law on elections calling for the voting age to be lowered from 18 to 16.

The deputies fighting for the right of children to vote are Aleksander Barannikov and Andrei Vulf of the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS). They have submitted an amendment aimed at lowering the age limit in all four laws that state the age of suffrage -- the law on basic guarantees of electoral rights of the citizens of the Russian Federation; on elections of the President of Russian Federation; on elections of the deputies of the State Duma and on political parties.

The authors of the draft maintain that in Russia, the minimum age at which citizens are allowed to vote has been artificially raised. People get passports at 14 and can already be held partially responsible for crimes. At 16 Russians are criminally responsible, so in other words, they can become criminals, but not take part in elections.

Deputy Barannikov says this is not fair. ''Why can they not choose the future of their country if they can be held criminally responsible?'' His colleague, deputy Vulf, has told the press that the right to vote might actually prevent teenagers from entering the world of crime. ''People aged between 16 and 18 are more active in the electoral sphere. If we deprive them of the right to vote we are turning them over to criminal gangs…''

However, the pragmatic side of the problem is much more important. Lowering the minimum age will swell the ranks of the electorate by several percent at one fell swoop. And the rightists expect to get the major part of their votes. According to Vulf, the Union of Rightist Forces attaches great importance to young people, as the rightists presently enjoy the support of ''intellectual students and independent young people from large cities''.

The rightist party knows the value of an extra few percent at the elections and in 2003 the issue becomes particularly desperate -- according to polls taken by the All-Russian polling centre WTSIOM in January, SPS started the election year with a rating of only 3 percent and the party faces the prospect of not being able to overcome the 5 percent Duma threshold.

''I understand this initiative by the SPS, they are directing themselves towards the youth,'' says Mark Urnov, the head of the Centre of Political Technologies. ''Right now, as their ratings are falling this is a way of increasing the probability of getting into the Duma. And with regards to their methods, they are aiming at the greenest of the younger generation.''

It should be noted that the authors of the amendment have not even tried to conceal their real intentions, but they believe that they are working not only for themselves, but for the Yabloko Party as well. We are not passing this law for ourselves, we are clearing the path for all rightist movements, Vulf has said. But the Yabloko activists, who refused an SPS suggestion two weeks ago to form a single bloc for the election, are just as unenthusiastic with the idea of granting 16-year-olds full electoral rights.

''This means putting the question in a populist way,'' deputy chairman of Yabloko, Sergei Mitrokhin has told Gazeta.Ru. ''Only the people who are mature must be allowed to vote. Anything else violates the principle of independence while making decisions, as young people are very subject to influences.''

Other parliamentary factions have also hurried to accuse the SPS of populism and Zhirinovsky's LDPR went even further, saying that the rightists stole their idea. ''Three years ago they announced that a similar suggestion from us was not worth discussing,'' chairman of the LDPR faction Igor Lebedev told Gazeta.Ru. ''But, as you can see now, we were right. They waited for the moment when everybody had forgotten and now they submit it again.''

The last time the Duma deputies contemplated the possibility of allowing under 18s to vote was last year while working on the draft law on basic guarantees of the electoral rights of the citizens of the Russian Federation. Those against the idea prevailed, but the difference was very small. Then, the amendment was opposed by Yabloko, People's Deputies, Russian Regions and Communists and supported by the SPS and LDPR factions as well as the centrists Unity and Fatherland-All-Russia.

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