United Russia, the largest political party in Russia and backer of President Vladimir Putin, has claimed victory in scores of regional elections, several weeks after the suspected poisoning of opposition politician Alexei Navalny.
Official results from the vote have not yet been released, but a leading official from United Russia said exit polls and preliminary data pointed to a victory for the party's candidates in regional and municipal elections across the country, Russian news agency Interfax reported late Sunday after polls closed. Russia's Central Election Commission confirmed United Russia candidates were leading the results in regions where they were nominated, Interfax also reported.
According to the first data of the Central Election Commission of the Russian Federation, the candidates from "United Russia" - the acting governors and interim heads of the regions - lead the elections in all subjects where they were nominated
The party is long-associated with Putin. The strongman president ran as an independent candidate in Russia's last general election in 2018, but won the previous 2012 vote as a candidate for United Russia.
"All candidates from United Russia in the elections of top officials are winning confidently in the first round," Secretary of the General Council of United Russia, Andrei Turchak, said on Sunday, as preliminary results emerged from the numerous elections of officials at various levels. Elections were held in 83 of 85 Russian regions with voting closing at 9.00 p.m. local time Sunday evening.
But allies of opposition politician Alexei Navalny, the victim of a suspected nerve agent poisoning last month, said their candidates had also secured key city council seats, AFP reported Monday. Interfax also said that United Russia had lost their majorities on city councils in Novosibirsk and Tomsk, the city where Navalny is suspected to have been poisoned before boarding the flight to Moscow on which he was taken ill.
Navalny remains in hospital in Germany following the incident which doctors believe involved the use of a Novichok nerve agent. Russia denies any involvement in the poisoning, and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said that "there are no grounds to accuse the Russian state."
Before the suspected attack, Navalny and his allies had been urging Russians to vote tactically in regional elections in order to beat pro-Putin candidates.
Concerns were expressed over home voting and early voting, which was allowed on Sept. 11 and 12 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile, independent Russian election monitor Golos saying on its website that it had received 1,076 calls regarding irregularities in the voting process in a handful of regions.
However, the electoral commission dismissed concerns, tweeting that while there had been "few" reports of voting irregularities and violations, these had been "fixed" quickly.
Opposition figures have been frequently targeted in Russia, with independent candidates excluded from local elections in Moscow last year, prompting protests.
Russia analyst Andrius Tursa, central and eastern Europe advisor at Teneo Intelligence, said he was watching the vote closely.
"While there is little doubt that UR – and affiliated candidates – will win most electoral races, tight competition is expected in the country's third largest city Novosibirsk ... In gubernatorial elections, second-round runoffs might be expected in Arkhangelsk, Irkutsk, Kamchatka, Komi, and some other regions. These regions have a history of dissent and showed comparatively modest backing for the constitutional amendments President Vladimir Putin initiated earlier this year," he said in a note ahead of the vote.
He noted that the Kremlin had relied "on tested methods to give its backed candidates the edge," including "cracking down on the opposition, journalists, and civic activists, with the sidelining of ... Navalny being the most visible case."
This weekend's regional elections were the first to be held after a public vote on constitutional changes that allow Putin to stand for two further terms in office up to 2036. The next presidential election is in 2024 but Putin has not yet said whether he will run for office. Nonetheless, the constitutional changes were seen as preparing the ground for Putin to cement his power base.
The next big test for United Russia will be parliamentary elections in 2021, with this weekend's vote helping to gauge public support for the party.
"The party's approval ratings have significantly dropped in recent years. In the 2016 general election, UR won 54.2% of all votes, but it currently attracts just 30-31% support in public opinion polls. A major overhaul of the party's image and leadership is likely ahead of the 2021 general election," Tursa noted.