Vladimir Putin’s party United Russia has posted worse-than-expected results in the country’s parliamentary elections, despite months of voter suppression and intimidation tactics geared towards minimising turnout.
Exit polls and early results from the Far East of Russia showed United Russia winning less than half of the votes and the Communists making strong gains to over 20 per cent, showcasing Russians’ significant disillusionment with Mr Putin’s party.
Voting in the elections concluded amid mounting reports of nationwide ballot stuffing and multiple voting. In the runup to the three-day vote, a countless number of Kremlin critics, including allies of Alexei Navalny, were barred from running for the State Duma.
The ruling United Russia party is facing an uphill battle to get a majority in parliament as its approval ratings recently hit a 13-year low. The party won just over 54 per cent of the vote in 2016, the last time a parliamentary election was held.
In an effort to counter the Kremlin’s repressive tactics, the opposition developed ‘Smart Voting’, a tactical voting campaign that endorses one of the registered non-United Russia candidates and tells citizens the most effective way of blocking United Russia’s candidates from winning in a given seat.
Leonid Volkov, Mr Navalny’s right-hand man and the brain behind Smart Voting, on Sunday conceded that some Navalny supporters might not be inclined to vote for the endorsed candidates, many of whom are Communists.
“We will certainly get to live in a Russia where one can vote for good candidates with different political programmes, and Navalny’s party will fight for a spot in parliament in free and fair elections. But right now Smart Voting is a vote for Navalny.”
Russian authorities, who describe ‘Smart Voting’ as illegal interference and blamed the West for promoting it, have been successful in pressuring western Big Tech companies into removing Smart Voting’s app from their online stores.
Opposition-minded Russians decried Apple and Google for caving in to Kremlin censorship and another blow to the Navalny team came from Google on Friday morning as YouTube took down its video listing the endorsed candidates.
Mr Navalny, the Kremlin’s most formidable foe who was jailed in January for violating the terms of his probation, called on his supporters to back Smart Voting.
“Get the endorsement. Cast your ballot. Get someone else to do the same,” he said in a message from prison relayed by his lawyers on SUN/yesterday.
At a polling station in central Moscow, most of the voters the Telegraph spoke to said they were backing Mr Navalny.
Maria, 34, who asked her surname to be withdrawn for security reasons, said she used the Navalny team’s recommendation and backed a Smart Voting candidate because she wants to see changes in Russia.
Maria said she was “saddened” by growing repressions against Kremlin opponents and anyone who publicly opposes Vladimir Putin.
“People would be more willing to support Navalny, and more people would take to the streets if there was no risk that you’d be hit in the head by riot police.”
Several people holding posters in Mr Navalny’s support were detained in Moscow on Sunday.
Tatyana, 43, voted for United Russia as she still sees President Putin, whom she compared to Peter the Great, as the only viable choice for the country.
“He’s a strong president, and I feel safe with him.”
Reports of election fraud started to pour in Friday, and more documented cases of vote-rigging were reported on SUN/yesterday.
The well-respected association of election observers Golos reported more than 4,000 instances of election violations by early SUN/yesterday afternoon.
In an interim report, Golos pointed to “large-scale violations of the rights of observers, election commission members and candidates who often face threats and use of force,” something Russia’s election watchdog is not paying much attention to, unlike at previous elections.
Some of the violations were almost farcical.
When confronted by an election observer about an unusually high number of at-home voters, the chairman of a local election commission in Cheboksary crumpled the voters’ list and popped it into this month before eating it.
Ella Pamfilova, head of the Russian Central Election Commission who previously defended the decision to disqualify a large number of opposition candidates, said on Sunday that they confirmed eight cases of ballot stuffing in six regions. Results at those polling stations would be scrapped, she said.