'Unprecedented Audacity': A 'Magic' Comeback For Kremlin's Candidate In Disputed Gubernatorial Ballot
Less than a week before the gubernatorial runoff in Russia's Far East Primorye region, President Vladimir Putin met with the Kremlin-backed candidate, who had failed to secure the required majority to defeat his Communist Party runner-up outright in the first round.
"I know you have a runoff coming up," Putin told Andrei Tarasenko -- the candidate with the ruling United Russia party whom he appointed acting governor last year -- during the September 11 meeting in Vladivostok. "I think everything will be alright."
Things were not looking good for Tarasenko, who trailed Communist Party challenger Andrei Ishchenko for most of the day as votes were counted in the September 16 second-round ballot.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Ishchenko's seemingly assured victory: A last-second surge of votes tallied for Tarasenko pushed the acting governor ahead toward what one election analyst called a "mathematically impossible" victory, thanks to what Ishchenko denounced as blatant fraud.
"My friends, they are stealing our votes. We will defend our victory now!" Ishchenko wrote on his Facebook page.
Supporters of Ishchenko, who declared a hunger strike in response to the results, rallied in protest outside the regional administration's headquarters in Vladivostok, holding banners denouncing election officials as "scam artists" and reading "Ishchenko is our governor."
The Vladivostok headquarters of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny called on people to join the protests.
Here's what you need to know about one of the strangest Russian elections in recent years.
With 95 percent of the voting precincts having reported on September 16, Ishchenko was leading with 51.61 percent of the votes, compared to 45.79 for Tarasenko, whose appointment by Putin in October 2017 came amid what the Kremlin has portrayed as an effort to inject fresh administrative blood into Russia's regions.
But as more precincts began reporting, Tarasenko began closing in on Ishchenko, who represents the Communist Party in the regional parliament. With 98.77 percent of voting precincts reporting, Ishchenko had 49.91 percent of the votes compared to 47.61 for Tarasenko.
By the time 99.1 percent of precincts had reported, official tallies showed the acting governor ahead of his challenger by a total of 7,644 votes.
Aleksandr Kireyev, a Russian electoral geography expert, wrote on his blog that Tarasenko's comeback after trailing by nearly 6 percentage points with 95 percent of precincts reporting was "mathematically impossible."
"I had a solid lead of 5 percent, but in the morning the magic of numbers spelled defeat for me," Ishchenko wrote on Facebook.
His fellow regional Communist lawmaker, Artyom Samsonov, alleged that Ishchenko had been robbed of more than 20,000 votes in the city of Ussuriisk, where official results showed Tarasenko defeating Ishchenko 74.27 percent to 24.42 percent.
Two precincts in Ussuriisk reported that Ishchenko received zero votes compared to 540 and 112, respectively, for the acting governor, according to results posted by the regional election commission.
The situation in the region is "very important for Russia," Boris Nadezhdin, a liberal former federal lawmaker, wrote on Facebook.
"Falsifications have happened before, but for the first time falsifications truly changed the outcome of a gubernatorial election; [and] the scope and audacity of the falsifiers is unprecedented," Nadezhdin wrote.
What Is United Russia Saying?
Tarasenko's election headquarters, meanwhile, is accusing the Communists of illegally buying votes for Ishchenko, who finished in second place in first-round voting with 24.6 percent compared to 46.6 percent for Tarasenko.
"Primorye region has seen a direct falsification attempt through vote buying," Igor Khrushchyov, a top United Russia official in the region, told Russia's state-run RIA Novosti news agency.
Khrushchyov alleged that Tarasenko's campaign has audio, photographic, and video evidence to support the allegations.
The official website of United Russia had made no mention of the dispute surrounding the runoff vote as of midday on September 17.
What Are Election Officials Saying?
Russian Central Election Commission (TsIK) chief Ella Pamfilova, a former human rights ombudswoman whom Kremlin opponents accuse of lending a veneer of legitimacy to an electoral system they call rigged, said on September 17 that her commission would "thoroughly deal with everything" before announcing the final results of the election.
She said her commission would "eagerly await" any possible evidence that "voting reports were rewritten or there were some kind of violations in the final stage while tabulating the results."
"Whether we'll recognize the results or not -- either overall or from particular precincts -- or punish someone or declare someone the winner, that is an open question until all facts are thoroughly studied by us," Pamfilova was quoted by the state-run TASS news agency as saying.
What Is The Kremlin Saying?
The Kremlin took a largely neutral stance on September 17 -- publicly at least.
"Right now, one should look primarily to all of the announcements made by the TsIK," Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying.
He claimed that while there were "statements, there is not yet a single official complaint."
Peskov declined to comment on Ishchenko's allegation that he was robbed of victory in the election, Russia's state-run TASS news agency reported.
What Impact Could The Election Have?
The September 16 ballot was one of four gubernatorial runoffs following nationwide elections in Russia earlier this month that were the first electoral test for Putin's government since it launched its unpopular plan to raise the retirement age.
Aleksandr Kynev, a political scientist at Moscow's Higher School of Economics, told the Russian-language news outlet Meduza that Ishchenko's performance in the Primorye region election would "undoubtedly" affect the September 23 gubernatorial runoffs in the Far Eastern Khabarovsk region, the Siberian region of Khakasia, and the central Vladimir region.
Incumbents from United Russia are facing challengers in all three regions.
"It's a very strong psychological effect -- that there are actual elections," Kynev said to Meduza when results still showed Ishchenko winning. "It will increase turnout. The effect of solidarity and, if you will, political fashion will have a very strong influence."
After results showed Tarasenko moving ahead of his challenger, Meduza asked Kynev if he had ever seen anything like it in Russian politics.
Kynev said that while there were analogous situations in mayoral ballots, "in gubernatorial elections, there's never been anything like this."