The Kremlin's candidates suffered losses in the local elections in Moscow when Vladimir Putin's top critic praised the success of his campaign to encourage strategic voting.
The election was closely followed by both sides after a summer of protests in the Russian capital against the Kremlin's refusal to allow candidates allied to the opposition leader. Alexei Navalny participate in the vote.
According to Russian media reports, the Kremlin banned opposition candidates after internal polls indicated they would win at least nine seats. Although the city council has few powers, analysts say the Kremlin was reluctant to allow Navalny's allies to position themselves on the electoral ladder before much more meaningful parliamentary polls, which should take place at 2021.
Navalny, 43, has portrayed the city council elections as a referendum on Putin and the United Russia party, which supports the president. He urged voters to vote for the strongest opponents of United Russia, even if they represent political parties in which they would not normally vote, such as the communists.
Although United Russia held the majority in Moscow after Sunday's vote, its share of city council seats from 45 seats has been reduced from 40 to 25. The communist party held 13 seats, up from five last time, while the Just Russia party won three seats. Both parties are widely viewed as part of the Kremlin's "loyal opposition."
All four candidates from Yabloko, Russia's oldest liberal party, won their districts. Yabloko was the only genuinely independent party allowed at the polls in Moscow.
All United Russia candidates ran as nominal "independents" in an apparent attempt to distance themselves from their increasingly unpopular party. An opinion poll published before the election by an independent think tank indicated that it was supported by only 11% of voters in Moscow. The state researcher said in April that Putin's party was supported by 22% of voters in the Russian capital.
Discontent with the ruling party was driven by a variety of factors, including a five-year increase in national retirement age, growing economic hardship, and relentless allegations of corruption. The heavy police response to the protests that erupted in Moscow this summer also served to rally opposition figures. Putin's own ratings are at almost record levels, although they are still high by international standards.
Andrei Metelsky, who heads the United Russia branch in Moscow, was the top United Kingdom secret candidate to lose his board seats. The party described its election defeat to a little-known socialist, backed by the communist party, as "unpleasant". Navalny recently accused Metelsky of covering up his ownership of multimillion-dollar properties in the Austrian Alps. Metelsky denies any wrongdoing.
In the run-up to the polls, Navalny launched a “smart voting” website and app to make it easier to identify candidates who could do the most damage to the Russian country. "We can clearly say that smart voting worked," he said after the results.
Sergei Sobyanin, Moscow mayor, supported by the Kremlin, said the elections were the most competitive in recent history. "Passions burned," he said.
Although it was difficult to say exactly what the influence of strategic voting on the final results, some of the successful candidates recognized their role. Justand nominee Yandiev Magomet said Navalny's support was vital to the defeat of a much more prominent candidate from United Russia.
Magomet said, however, that he supported many of Putin's policies. “But I was against the use of force against [electoral] protesters. These people wanted the best for Moscow, ”he said.
During the protests in July and August, more than 2.500 people were arrested by riot police amid chaotic scenes in Red Square. On Monday, UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet called for an inquiry into allegations of excessive force by the Russian police.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet
Michelle Bachelet Photo: Salvatore Di Nolfi / AP
Four people were sentenced to prison on charges related to electoral protests. Anti-Putin activist Konstantin Kotov was arrested for four years last week after being found guilty of taking part in five peaceful but unsanctioned protests.
Elsewhere, United Russia suffered an impressive loss in Khabarovsk, in the far east of the country, where Russia's Liberal National Democratic Party (LDPR) won 34 from 35 seats in the regional parliament. United Russia also lost the majority in Irkutsk in eastern Siberia.
Putin's party fared much better in the governor elections. All of their holders triumphed in the first round. Six of his acting governors also ran as independents, including in St. Petersburg.
There were several allegations of electoral fraud in Russia, including a ballot box that was stolen from a polling station in St. Petersburg. In Tuva, near Russia's border with Mongolia, men on horseback opened fire on a van carrying observers and journalists. No one was injured in the incident.
State media said the elections were free and fair. Putin rejected suggestions that more candidates should be allowed to stay, saying that the quality of the candidates was more important than their quantity.