Sat, 21 Sep 2019

MOSCOW -- Russia's ruling United Russia party, which backs President Vladimir Putin, has suffered a stinging setback in Moscow's city council elections, final preliminary results showed, suggesting a voting strategy advocated by opposition politician Aleksei Navalny may have been successful.

Over 3,000 election campaigns culminated across Russia on September 8, with 16 regions electing governors, a dozen electing legislatures, and hundreds of municipal races held.

But most of the attention was focused on Moscow after the barring of many independent candidates sparked some of the Russian capital's biggest protests in years over the summer.

United Russia candidates won 25 of the Moscow City Duma's 45 seats, enough to retain its majority, according to complete preliminary results released on September 9.

But that was down from 2014, when the party won 28 seats outright, plus 10 by independent candidates it backed.

The Communist Party was set to win 13 seats, up from five in 2014, final preliminary results showed.

The opposition Yabloko Party won three seats, and an independent candidate it backed also won.

It will be the first time that Yabloko will be represented in the Moscow City Duma since 2005.

The Fair Russia party also won three seats, final results quoted by Interfax showed.

The three parties are nominally in opposition, but often back the Kremlin's initiatives.

Daria Besedina, a Yabloko party candidate who won her Moscow district race, downplayed the importance of her victory.

'We shouldn't forget that these were not real elections -- a lot of genuine [opposition] candidates who would have won were not allowed to run,' Besedina wrote on Twitter. 'Moscow needs normal elections,' she added.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that, despite the election setback in Moscow, United Russia had done well overall.

'In general, the election campaign across Russia was very successful for the United Russia party. It won more in some places than others. But in general for the country the party showed its political leadership,' Peskov said.

'Smart Voting'

Navalny, who was jailed for urging supporters to join the protests in Moscow, had pushed a strategy for voters to cast ballots in each race for the candidate with the best chance of defeating United Russia. Navalny said on Twitter that the tactic of 'smart voting' had delivered a 'fantastic result.'

Much of the public has turned against United Russia after it passed a law raising retirement ages, increased the value-added tax rate, adopted a program to tax long-haul trucking, and cracked down on local protests in many cities against numerous controversial proposals for coping with solid waste.

United Russia also suffered a huge loss in an election for the Khabarovsk region's local parliament in the Far East, winning just two of 24 seats up for grabs.

However, the elections weren't all bad news for Putin. In the 16 gubernatorial races contested on September 8, all of the Kremlin-backed incumbents or interim leaders appeared headed for victory, Current Time reported.

Putin had replaced several regional governors prior to the elections, apparently in a bid to avoid a repeat of last year's gubernatorial elections, when several Kremlin-backed candidates lost.

In the country's second-largest city, St. Petersburg, acting governor Aleksandr Beglov had more than 64 percent of the vote with more than 90 percent of ballots counted.

The tenure of Beglov, appointed to his post on an interim basis last year by Putin, has been plagued by gaffes and questions of competence in running the liberal-minded city.

Voting Violations

The independent election-monitoring organization Golos reported more than 1,700 voting violations across Russia, including more than 560 cases in Moscow and 220 in St. Petersburg.

Numerous reports of electoral fraud were posted on social media, although RFE/RL could not independently verify their veracity.

Several videos circulating on social media showed some voters openly stuffing ballot boxes with multiple voting slips.

Meanwhile, Russian state communications watchdog Roskomnadzor accused tech giants Google and Facebook of election meddling, saying they displayed local election ads despite being asked to remove them.

Both Google and Facebook denied the charges.

Voting also took place on September 8 in Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that Russia illegally annexed in March 2014, a move largely rejected by the international community, including the United States and European Union.

In a statement, EU spokesperson Maja Kocijancic said, 'anybody elected in the Crimean Peninsula claiming to 'represent' the populations of Crimea and Sevastopol will not be recognized as representatives of those territories, which are Ukrainian.'

Commentators said independent candidates in Moscow had hoped to use the election as a way to send a message that the opposition was still capable of being a political force after years of systematic pressure from the authorities.

But in July, election officials in the Russian capital barred dozens of potential independent candidates on the grounds that some of the signatures they had submitted individually to get on the ballot were invalid.

The rejected candidates, many allied with Navalny, accused local officials of using any means to keep them off the ballot.

The decision to bar the candidates sparked a wave of protests, the largest since the massive 2011-12 protests against Putin's return to the Kremlin for a third term as president.

Thousands were briefly detained in the protests, culminating in an estimated 50,000 attending a Moscow rally on August 10.

With reporting by Current Time, Interfax, Meduza, Reuters, AP, and AFP

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036

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