MOSCOW – What was supposed to be a sleepy round of off-cycle regional elections Sunday has turned into a referendum on President Vladimir Putin and his ruling United Russia party.
Initial results in a few races for governor appeared to show good news for the Kremlin even as its candidates faced unusual opposition in several regions across the country amid stagnant incomes and unpopular reforms. Elections for Moscow’s largely toothless city council this summer sparked Russia’s biggest protests since Putin returned to the presidency in 2012 after four years as prime minister.
Russia’s tightly managed political life is showing strains in Putin’s 20th year at the pinnacle of power. In response, the Kremlin has tweaked its playbook, allowing former United Russia candidates to run as independents and keeping popular local rivals, even loyal ones, off the ballots. At the same time, the authorities have cracked down hard on dissent, repeatedly detaining opposition leaders, breaking up peaceful demonstrations and serving up lengthy prison terms to a handful of protesters.
“The authorities still haven’t learned the necessary lesson yet from previous setbacks, that people are voting against them rather than against imperfect candidates,” said Nikolai Petrov, a fellow at London-based Chatham House think tank. “The overall social mood, just like in the last elections, remains unfavorable.”Pro-Kremlin candidates suffered major losses in a Moscow municipal election following an opposition-led strategic voting campaign.
With nearly all votes counted, news agencies Monday reported significant gains for independent, Communist and liberal candidates against those allied with the ruling United Russia party.
The Communists were on track to win 13 or 14 seats, up from only five in the previous assembly, Interfax and RIA Novosti reported.
After having held none previously, the liberal Yabloko party and left-leaning Just Russia party were set to take three seats each.
Pro-Kremlin deputies held 38 of the assembly’s 45 seats after the previous election in 2014, with 28 belonging to United Russia.
No candidates ran under its banner this year as the party is deeply unpopular. Interfax said nine previous deputies of United Russia had retained their seats but that Andrei Metelsky, the party’s leader in Moscow, had lost a re-election bid.
After his allies were banned from the vote, main opposition leader Alexei Navalny put forward a “smart voting” plan urging Muscovites to support those who had the highest chances of beating pro-Kremlin candidates.
But initial results in Russia’s east, where most of the ballots were already counted by late Sunday in Moscow, showed the Kremlin’s favored candidates winning in Sakhalin and the Zabaikalsky region. An exit poll in St. Petersburg put the Kremlin favorite well above the 50 percent needed to win in the first round. Full results are due later Monday.
In European Russia, a handful of Kremlin-backed candidates may have trouble avoiding a runoff as their popularity ratings wane, according to Mikhail Vinogradov, the head of the St. Petersburg Politics Foundation.
Opposition activists reported election irregularities in several of the races, but officials said the voting proceeded smoothly, according to local news agencies. Russia’s Internet regulator accused Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Facebook Inc. of showing political advertisements the day before the vote, in violation of local rules and said it would turn over its findings to parliamentary committees investigating foreign interference in the elections, the official Tass news agency reported. The Kremlin has sought to paint its opponents as backed by the U.S.
Voters ousted United Russia incumbents in three regions last year. In the politically important Primorye region in Russia’s Far East that includes the port of Vladivostok, Putin’s party only managed to retain the governor’s seat with a rerun election after mass falsifications in favor of the Kremlin’s original candidate were exposed.
Less than half of the population approves of the government’s work, while Putin’s personal rating took a hit after pension reforms last year and remains near its lowest since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, according to the Levada Center, an independent pollster.
But some close to the Kremlin brush off the pressures.
“There’s been a decline in social welfare, which is a familiar position for the authorities, and they have accumulated experience over the past 20 years on how to act,” said Konstantin Kostin, a former Kremlin official who now heads a think tank that works with the government. “Therefore, there will be few or no unpleasant surprises on election day.”
Part of the strategy has been leaning hard on the opposition. More than a dozen opposition candidates were denied places on the ballot for Moscow City Council elections, sparking this summer’s protests. Opposition leader Navalny said Thursday that his Anti-Corruption Foundation, which has gained huge audiences for online reports alleging graft by high-ranking officials, was raided in what was a “common” occurrence for the fund. He was one of several opposition politicians jailed this summer for calling on people to protest.
The authorities have also targeted rank-and-file protesters.
Last Thursday a Moscow court sentenced Konstantin Kotov, a 34-year-old software engineer, to four years in prison for taking part in several unsanctioned protests.
Kotov is only the second person to be convicted for attending illegal protests, according to Human Rights Watch associate director Tanya Lokshina. Ildar Dadin, who was sentenced under the same law in 2015, was released after the Constitutional Court ruled protesting wasn’t a criminal offense unless it was a threat to society.
Amid the crackdown, Navalny has urged supporters to back his “smart voting” campaign, which encourages voters to back the candidate in each district who is most likely to defeat the politician put forward by the Kremlin, regardless of political ideology.
For the Kremlin, “the risks are growing, due to a noticeable political awakening and the inability of the authorities to handle this revival in a civilized way,” said Moscow-based political scientist Valery Solovei.