Russians on Sunday voted in regional elections overshadowed by the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny as independent monitors condemned a reported “stream” of voting irregularities.
The polls come a year ahead of parliamentary elections and are seen as a test for the Kremlin, as the ruling party faced sinking popularity and simmering public anger over economic woes.
In 41 of the country’s 85 regions, Russians voted for regional governors and lawmakers in regional and city legislatures as well as in several by-elections for national MPs.
In an effort to fight President Vladimir Putin’s electoral machine, Navalny and his team have urged Russians to vote tactically by backing the strongest candidates against the ruling party United Russia.
Some of the highest-profile campaigns have taken place in Novosibirsk, Russia’s third largest city, and neighboring Tomsk where Navalny traveled last month.
He had been in Siberia to promote his “Smart Voting” campaign when he was poisoned with what Germany says is a Novichok nerve agent.
‘Smart Voting works’
Navalny’s team said the first results in Novosibirsk and Tomsk looked promising.
“We are seeing that the ‘Smart Voting’ works,” the team said on Twitter.
The head of Navalny’s office in Novosibirsk, Sergei Boiko, has created an opposition alliance to counter United Russia and the Communist Party.
Boiko’s “Novosibirsk 2020” coalition has put forward around 30 candidates for the city legislature and campaigned with volunteers from Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Fund.
“This is an opportunity to show the whole of Russia that democratic forces can unite,” Boiko told AFP on Sunday.
Voter Damir Adgamov, a 26-year-old dental technician, said he backed Boiko’s coalition after watching Navalny’s videos on YouTube.
“I decided to try,” he said. “I don’t know if things will be better with Navalny or Boiko or worse, but at least we’ll see.”
Vladimir Semyonov, a 57-year-old retired army officer, said he had also voted for an opposition candidate, “to change something, so we don’t have stagnation.”
Boiko said his supporters have recorded dozens of violations, including an attempt to illegally remove observers while a safe containing early votes at one polling station had its seals broken.
“This means some people at night had access to ballot papers from previous days,” he said.
Reports of ballot stuffing
Several regions recorded large turnouts in two days of early voting, with more than 50% of the electorate casting ballots early in the far eastern Jewish Autonomous Region and in Tatarstan.
The independent election monitor group Golos said it received a “stream of reports” that observers had been denied their legal rights to view documents and submit complaints, with conflicts sometimes ending in “fisticuffs.”
It said it had also received reports of ballot stuffing and officials switching ballot papers cast by real voters for ones they had filled in.
Early voting began on Friday, and Sunday was the main polling day.
For the first time, elections in the country for were held over three days and some polling stations for early voting were open-air.
The measures were officially introduced to guard against coronavirus, but the opposition said it was a ploy to falsify election results.
Navalny’s ally Leonid Volkov said the scheme was thought up to combat the tactical voting system.
“At night, God alone knows what happens to the ballots and it’s not clear how to monitor and count this,” he said.
Electoral chief Ella Pamfilova denounced such “unobjective and mean” accusations.
“Currently we do not see that many violations,” she said.
The controversial three-day system was first used this summer for a national vote on constitutional amendments that made it possible for Putin to stay in power until 2036.
Political analysts say the results of the polls will help the Kremlin determine whether the unpopular ruling party needs to be reformed, while the poisoning of Navalny could have also influenced voters.
After he was evacuated from Siberia to Berlin, German doctors said Navalny had been poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent.
His associates believe the use of the banned chemical weapon shows that only the Russian state could be responsible.
Navalny is now out of a medically induced coma and reacting to speech, the Berlin’s hospital that is treating him said on Monday.
He had previously set up an online system to help voters back the strongest candidates against the ruling party, which he calls the “party of swindlers and thieves.”