Kremlin suffers a major upset in Moscow elections

The ruling United Russia party lost 30 per cent of its council seats despite banning of opposition candidates

Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny casts his vote at a polling station during to the Moscow city Duma election on September 8, 2019. AFP
Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny casts his vote at a polling station during to the Moscow city Duma election on September 8, 2019. AFP

Pro-Kremlin politicians suffered a major setback in local elections in Moscow on Sunday, even though dozens of opposition candidates were barred from running in a move that sparked massive protests before the ballot.

Politicians aligned with the ruling United Russia party lost about 30 per cent of the seats they held in the Moscow City parliament, election results released on Monday morning showed.

The results point to the success of a “smart voting” campaign led by opposition leader Alexei Navalny. After nearly 70 opposition candidates and independents were barred from running, the long-time Kremlin critic called on Muscovites to oust United Russia by voting for Communists or Yabloko, an opposition party tolerated by the Kremlin.

“This is a fantastic result for smart voting,” Mr Navalny said as the results were published. “We fought for it together. Thanks to everyone for their contribution.”

Among the Kremlin-friendly candidates to lose their seats was Andrei Metelsky, a veteran of the Moscow City parliament and head of United Russia's branch in the capital. However, United Russia candidates still won 25 of the 45 seats to retain an overall majority.

Despite embarrassing losses, the Kremlin seemed determined to see the bright side.

"In general, the election campaign across Russia was very successful for the United Russia party. It won more in some places than others. But in general for the country the party showed its political leadership," said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

The vote on Sunday would have been a blip on the political calendar since the Moscow City parliament wields very little actual power.

But the election commission’s decision to bar 68 independents and opposition candidates, including allies of Mr Navalny, sparked the largest rallies in the capital in years.

The European Union, the United Nations and international rights groups criticised President Vladimir Putin’s violent crackdown on successive demonstrations that brought tens of thousands out on to the streets and morphed into a protest against worsening living standards during Mr Putin’s 20-year tenure.

With turnout estimated at a dismal 21 per cent, the Communist Party gained seven seats to raise its numbers in the Moscow Duma to 13. The Yabloko party won four seats and Just Russia three.

With the ruling party’s ratings plummeting over mismanagement and corruption, United Russia candidates had tried to camouflage their affiliation by running as independents.

Mr Navalny’s campaign responded by launching a website to highlight the candidates’ affiliation and recommend opposition alternatives.

The federal communications watchdog on Sunday accused tech conglomerates Google and Facebook of allowing political ads on their platforms during the vote, despite being specifically requested by authorities to ban them.

Roskomnadzor said “such actions can be seen as interference in Russia's sovereign affairs”, an accusation both companies denied.

Before the vote, Ella Paneyakh of the Higher School of Economics in St Petersburg, wrote in the Vedomosti business daily that the authorities had yet to table any alternative to political dissatisfaction other than dispersing demonstrators with the baton.

“Yes, the authorities still have legions of loyal followers and even more people who are ready to tolerate the status quo just so things don’t get any worse, but it seems that the regime no longer has any active and ideological supporters,” she wrote.

The election results on Monday seemed to back her claim.

Updated: September 9, 2019 07:15 PM


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