Russia votes in test of ruling party's grip, Navalny supporters defiant

© Reuters. Woman checks her ballot in a voting booth during local elections in the Siberian city of Tomsk


By Tom Balmforth and Maria Tsvetkova

MOSCOW/TOMSK (Reuters) – Russians went to the polls on Sunday in local elections being scrutinised for signs of discontent with the ruling United Russia party following the suspected poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.

Navalny, 44, had urged Russians to vote tactically against the ruling party in a bid to undermine its tight grip on power before he fell gravely ill in what Germany and his allies say was an attempt to kill him last month.

United Russia, which backs President Vladimir Putin, dominates politics across 11 time zones, but the elections come at a time of public frustration over years of falling wages and the government’s handling of the pandemic.

The regional polls, which will elect 18 governors and an array of local parliaments, city councils and municipal bodies, are seen as a dry run for next September’s parliamentary elections.

Navalny’s team has fielded dozens of candidates at elections for the city councils of Novosibirsk, Russia’s third biggest city by population, and Tomsk, a student town of around half a million people.

“People are tired of being promised a bright future if they just vote for them. Five years go by – and everything stays exactly the same,” said Fateev, 32, one of two Navalny supporters competing in Tomsk.

One voter, a student from Tomsk who identified himself only as Alexander, said he had voted for Ksenia Fadeyeva, the second Navalny candidate there.

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“I think it’s the same in all the regions. I doubt it’s different anywhere. People want something new,” he said.

Navalny’s allies have pressed ahead with the Kremlin critic’s “smart voting” strategy, naming more than a thousand politicians on the ballots they think can beat ruling party candidates and telling their supporters to vote for them.

The strategy aims to disrupt a political system that often bars the Kremlin’s staunchest foes from running, while allowing softer candidates from the parliamentary parties to compete. Navalny has been unable to set up his own party.

Early results coming in from Russia’s Far East where polling stations had already closed several time zones from Moscow showed two Kremlin-backed regional governors winning election by a landslide in Kamchatka and the Jewish Autonomous Region.

But there have been some signs of anti-Kremlin discontent in the regions.

Mass rallies in the far eastern city of Khabarovsk show no sign of abating two months after they flared over the arrest of a popular local governor who defeated United Russia’s candidate in an election upset in 2018.

Early voting began on Friday after authorities stretched out the elections over three days, a move criticised by independent election watchdog Golos which warned the longer period would make it harder for monitors to catch fraud at polling stations.

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