Russian election shows declining support for Putin’s party

A photo of President Vladimir Putin is displayed on a monitor on the side of a hotel on the outskirts of Moscow during his annual address on April 21, 2021. Early results in Russia’s parliamentary elections showed a rise in opposition to President Putin’s governing party, though it was nevertheless expected to cruise easily to victory. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)
Early results in Russia’s parliamentary elections showed a rise in opposition to President Vladimir Putin’s governing party, though it was nevertheless expected to cruise easily to victory.

In partial results broadcast by state television after three days of voting ended Sunday, the party, United Russia, carried 44% of the vote, 10 percentage points less than in the previous election in 2016. In second place, the Communist Party received 22%, compared with 13% in 2016.

Russian elections are not free and fair, and parliament’s role in recent years has mainly been to rubber-stamp the Kremlin’s initiatives while providing a veneer of democratic legitimacy to Putin’s rule. Over the weekend, videos of ballot stuffing and other apparent instances of fraud circulated widely on social media. But allies of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny had hoped to use the elections to deliver a rebuke to Putin by consolidating the opposition vote.

The weekend’s elections came amid a harsh crackdown on dissent by the Kremlin and murmurings of popular discontent. Apparently fearing a rebuke at the ballot box, authorities barred just about all well-known opposition figures from running for parliament, while forcing many dissidents into exile and declaring popular independent media outlets to be “foreign agents.”

The multiday nature of the elections — measures officially put in place to reduce the spread of the coronavirus — increased the likelihood of fraud by making the process harder to monitor, election observers and Kremlin critics said. And given the system by which the 450 seats in the lower house of parliament, the Duma, are apportioned, United Russia could still maintain its two-thirds majority in the chamber despite getting less than half of the votes.

The opposition’s uphill battle was complicated by decisions by Google and Apple to comply with Russian government demands to block access to Navalny-related content that was supposed to coordinate the protest vote. After the two tech giants on Friday removed from their stores a smartphone app connected to Navalny’s movement, Google over the weekend went further, apparently complying with a government request to block YouTube videos and Google Docs files that Navalny’s allies were using to coordinate voting across the country’s 225 electoral districts.

Google did not respond Sunday to a request for comment. Navalny’s allies, who are organising the protest vote campaign from abroad, said they were notified by Google that their content could be blocked because of a government request.

“This content is not available on this country domain due to a legal complaint from the government,” a YouTube message says when users in Russia try to open one of the blocked videos.

Google’s compliance with Russia’s demands in recent days has represented a remarkable concession for a company that prides itself on enabling the open exchange of information. In Russia, Google’s products — in particular, YouTube — have helped provide avenues for free expression even as the Kremlin has rolled back democratic freedoms.

Specific threats of prosecution against some of Google’s more than 100 employees inside Russia forced the company to take down the Navalny smartphone app, a person familiar with Google’s decision told The New York Times on Friday. Russian courts in recent months have outlawed Navalny’s movement as extremist and declared his “smart voting” campaign to be illegal.

Nevertheless, Navalny’s allies have been pushing the tactic they call “smart voting” to pool opposition votes and elect as many challengers to United Russia as possible, no matter the challengers’ political views. Their campaign garnered support among opposition-minded voters, many of whom managed to find out which candidate the “smart voting” campaign supported in their district despite Google and Apple’s compliance with the Russian government’s demands.

“This is an election without any choice, and while they can make up whatever result is necessary for them, ‘smart voting’ is a good mechanism,” said Philipp Samsonov, 32, a photographer in Moscow. “I hope that one day I can vote with my heart.”

Samsonov said he planned to vote for the candidate picked by the Navalny team in his district — in his case, a Communist — as the person with the best chance of defeating the governing party’s candidate. Samsonov also said he planned to vote Sunday evening to reduce the chances that something would happen to his ballot.

It was too early to tell Sunday evening whether Navalny’s smart voting campaign had borne fruit, with the early results providing little clarity on how individual candidates were faring on a district-by-district level. But nationwide, the surge in support for the Communists and the decline for United Russia reflected an increase in Russian discontent. On a YouTube broadcast Sunday evening, a top aide to Navalny, Leonid Volkov, described the probable loss of seats by United Russia as progress in the strategy of chipping away at Putin’s hold on power.

“This is, to put it lightly, a significant shift in the political landscape of the Russian Federation,” Volkov said.

Gennadi A. Zyuganov, the leader of the Communist Party in Russia, said there had been a “huge amount” of violations in the elections and warned of demonstrations in the coming days — a notable statement because the Communists are typically loyal to Putin on key issues.

“I can’t rule out that all this will lead to mass protests,” Zyuganov said Saturday on Twitter. “I am sure that people won’t stand for a blatant substitution of their choice.”

In St. Petersburg, some independent election observers were removed from polling stations and detained by police right before votes were counted. One observer, Ksenia Frolova, was detained after filing numerous complaints about irregularities.

“We discovered that the same person cast a vote several times at different polling stations,” Frolova, 18, a biology student, said in a phone interview shortly after being released from a police station. “I feel morally exhausted. You just feel that none of your complaints mattered.”

Last year, widespread fraud in the presidential election in neighbouring Belarus set off huge street protests — an outcome that analysts say the Kremlin is determined to prevent from occurring in Russia. Buses of riot police officers were stationed around central Moscow throughout the weekend, but there were no significant protests.

During the election, authorities appeared to be pulling out all the stops to get the typical United Russia base to the polls: public sector workers, members of the military and security services, and pensioners. In central Moscow on Friday, groups of men in civilian clothes, all with similar, tightly cropped haircuts, lined up outside a polling station that covers the Russian Ministry of Defence.

Some acknowledged that they were members of the military and that they had been “strongly advised” by their commanders to vote Friday. Others said that they had been given time off to vote before the weekend, which they planned to spend out of town.

And many Russians continue to support Putin. Outside a Moscow polling place, a teacher, Tatyana Kolosova, 46, said she had voted against United Russia to inject some “competition into the political sphere.” She said she hoped for a government shake-up after the elections that would result in more being done to reduce unemployment and support private business.

But she dismissed Navalny as “an enemy of our country” and promised to vote for Putin if he ran for a fifth term as president in 2024, recalling the relative poverty and chaos of the 1990s, before he came to power.

“I’m thankful that God gave us such a leader,” she said.

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