MOSCOW (AFP) - Russia's oft-ridiculed parliament was hit by a new scandal Wednesday after deputies were caught on video running from seat to seat pressing voting buttons for fellow MPs who did not bother to turn up.
The episode is the latest embarrassment for the Russian lower house of parliament, the State Duma, which often acts as little more than a rubber-stamp and rarely blocks initiatives from the Kremlin.
When a new law on drink-driving was debated in the lower house of the Russian parliament, the State Duma, it was passed on its first reading by more than 440 deputies, even though only 88 members were present.
The reason was simple. Deputies ran from empty seat to empty seat, pressing the electronic voting buttons for a majority of colleagues who were absent.
The bill that they were voting on was proposed by President Dmitry Medvedev.
The voting antics, which took place May 19, were first revealed in a news item filmed by Russian television channel Ren TV, which has been viewed more than 180,000 times on YouTube.
"One physically strong deputy has time to press nine buttons during the voting," Ren TV reported.
Deputies have around 20 seconds to vote, allowing the machinations, Russia's Komsomolskaya Pravda reported Wednesday.
"Of course, we suspected that our people's deputies do not sit around in the State Duma all day long, but come on, 88 out of 450 is too much," Komsomolskaya Pravda wrote.
Deputy speaker at the Duma, Oleg Morozov, is shown joking as the voting result comes up on the screen: 449 out of 450 deputies have passed the bill. "Someone must have stepped out," he quipped.
Ruling party United Russia reacted furiously to the video, with top party official Sergei Neverov threatening that deputies who skip sessions risked losing the party's nomination.
"We need to clamp down on the disgrace that often happens in the house when a number of the deputies are absent," Neverov said, the ITAR-TASS news agency reported.
"The Duma needs to get rid of the truant deputies."
Sergei Mironov, the speaker of the parliament's upper house, the Federation Council, also slammed the practice on Wednesday in comments to journalists.
"You can't call this situation anything but a disgrace, when a few deputies run around the room pressing buttons for absent colleagues," said Mironov, the leader of opposition party A Just Russia, cited by the Interfax news agency.
The Duma deputies include popular singers and former sports figures, including Olympic gymnast Alina Kabayeva.
In a sign of its nominal role, speaker Boris Gryzlov of the United Russia Party, famously said in 2003 that the Duma was "not the place for political battles."
In April, Medvedev criticised deputies for their poor attendance record.
"I am amazed myself by the picture in the parliament when only 10 to 15 percent of the members are present," Medvedev said.
"Unfortunately in Russia's State Duma, this practice is common. In the Duma's fifth term, it has been used and is being used all the time" said Alexei Mukhin, director of the Centre for Political Information.
"The leadership of the State Duma is very concerned about the absence of deputies, and this creates the illusion that the deputies are present and are voting."
Under Duma rules, absent deputies can pass their voting rights on to colleagues, but the uncontrolled button-pressing is "of course a breach of procedure," Mukhin said.
At least half the deputies are supposed to be present to make a vote valid.
So far the news has been reported more as an amusing novelty item than a serious breach of rules in the Duma, which is dominated by United Russia deputies.
"It's a question of time, but the absence of a scandal is a sign that United Russia actively uses this practice," Mukhin said.