Russia's local elections: Navalny's anti-Kremlin campaigning pays off

Ruling party candidates have swept to victory in almost every regional contest  but the opposition also demonstrated its potential.

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President Vladimir Putin’s ruling party, United Russia, retained control of councils and governorships in most of the 41 regions which went to the polls for local elections on Sunday, 13 September. However, the party has lost its majority in the local councils of Tomsk and Novosibirsk, where opposition leader Alexei Navalny had been touting his “smart voting” strategy in the weeks before he was poisoned

The vote was marred by accusations of widespread irregularities. The election monitor Golos said that it had received several reports that people had attempted to vote, only to find out that their ballot had already been issued and they had already voted. New multi-day voting and mobile election boxes allowed the authorities to boost turnout from loyal voters and evade scrutiny from monitors, said Ben Noble, a professor of Russian politics at University College London.

“It seems that the Kremlin has found a way to deal with United Russia’s low approval rating, currently around 30 per cent. That's the most important thing regarding the 2021 Duma elections,” Noble said. “But these were not easily won successes – far from it.”

Golos also accused the government of using the pandemic "as an excuse to make the electoral system even more opaque and subject to manipulation, including direct falsifications".

Local controversies became a lightning rod for opposition in many of the regions where United Russia incumbents faced relatively strong challengesIn Arkhangelsk, the sitting governor was returned once again, but only after facing a campaign which galvanised anger against an unpopular project for a huge landfill that was halted earlier this year.

[See also: who is the "poisoned" Russian opposition leader?]

In Tomsk, opposition candidates won 19 of 27 seats on the city council, TV2 reported, an especially poignant result given that Navalny had been campaigning in the Siberian city when he was poisoned. Navalny had advocated anti-Kremlin tactical voting, a strategy which appears to have worked in a handful of locations – even with its main proponent out of action since August. Several officials targeted by his investigations and accused of corruption lost their seats. 

The results of these regional elections, viewed as a dress rehearsal for next year’s elections to the Duma, will have reassured the Kremlin that it is, for the moment, able to keep a lid on opposition challenges at the ballot box. But they also demonstrate the potential for local campaigning to galvanise voters against the Kremlin. 

Ido Vock is international correspondent at the New Statesman.

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