Russians voted in local elections on Sunday that will test the popularity of President Vladimir Putin and his allies after a crackdown on opposition protests in Moscow.
Elections for municipal councils and regional governors took place across the country, but most attention was focused on Moscow, where tens of thousands took to the streets this summer after potential opposition candidates were barred from the vote.
Police detained hundreds of the protesters and while most were quickly released some faced serious charges. In the week before the election, five were sentenced to jail time ranging from two to four years.
On election day, police detained several protest figures including Maria Alyokhina of political punk group Pussy Riot and Ilya Azar, a journalist and city councillor.
The opposition has called for voters to punish the Kremlin and the ruling United Russia party at the ballot box.
“Today we are fighting to destroy United Russia’s monopoly,” Russia’s main opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, told reporters after voting.
Navalny’s allies were excluded from the election over alleged irregularities and he has put forward a “Smart Voting” plan.
It calls for voters to back the politician, whatever their affiliation, with the highest chance of beating pro-Kremlin candidates. Most of them are Communists.
Analysts say the vote is a test run ahead of parliamentary elections due in 2021 — both of the opposition’s ability to mobilise support and the authorities’ willingness to tolerate dissent.
‘Funeral’ for democracy
Alyona Prokhorova, a 46-year-old mother-of-four, said she was so disgusted by the summer crackdown that she signed up to be an election observer for the opposition.
“Moscow is against this hideousness,” Prokhorova told AFP at a polling station in the city’s southwest. “I still can’t get over it.”
Prokhorova said she backed Navalny’s strategic voting plan and her 18-year-old daughter also cast a ballot for the candidate he suggested.
Putin voted at his usual polling station at the Russian Academy of Sciences, where he appeared to dismiss the opposition’s concerns about barred candidates.
“It’s quality, not quantity that’s important,” said the 66-year-old leader who is entering his third decade in power.
Lyubov Sobol, a lawyer for Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Fund who was barred from running, said Sunday’s vote showed authorities had given up pretending that elections in Russia were democratic.
“This is the funeral for even the semblance of democratic elections,” the 31-year-old, who emerged as a key protest leader, said after voting.
Muscovite Alexander Mayorov, 69, said he voted for a Communist. Most United Russia members only “look out for themselves”, he said, but he was also sceptical about Navalny.
United Russia, formed in 2001 to support Putin, has seen its popularity collapse in recent years as incomes have fallen under Western sanctions. In Moscow, none of the pro-Kremlin candidates are running under its banner.
On Sunday, the state communications watchdog said Google, Facebook and YouTube had distributed political adverts on election day and were therefore guilty of “interfering in Russia’s sovereign affairs” and “hindering democratic elections”.
Watching the regions
Some 7.3 million people were eligible to elect 45 lawmakers in the Moscow parliament. The city’s mayor, Putin loyalist Sergei Sobyanin, was re-elected last year.
Polls in Moscow closed at 8:00 pm after 12 hours of voting. Turnout in the capital stood at about 17 percent as of 1500 GMT.
Elsewhere in the country, voters elected 16 governors alongside local assemblies.
First results in the country’s east showed pro-Kremlin candidates leading in several regions, including Zabaikalsky and Sakhalin.
Political observer Kirill Rogov said the “main event” was voting in the regions.
“Will we see a protest vote there or not?” he said.
The race for the governor’s seat in Saint Petersburg will be closely watched, as acting city chief Alexander Beglov tries to at least avoid a potential second round run-off.
Beglov is another close ally of Putin but is ridiculed by many for his embarrassing jokes and missteps.
Thirty-year-old Anna Topilova said she voted for the opposition in the Saint Petersburg municipal elections but skipped the governorship vote.
“It’s useless, I don’t want to be part of it,” she told AFP.
The opposition alleged there were irregularities in a number of races including mass violations in Saint Petersburg.
Results in Moscow are expected to start trickling in overnight, with full figures due Monday.