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Regional Elections Give Russia's Ruling Party Food For Thought


Children wait as their parents vote in ballot booths at a polling station in Ivanovo.
(RFE/RL) -- Heavily managed regional and local elections in 76 of Russia's 83 federation subjects have given the vast majority of mandates to the ruling United Russia party, according to preliminary results. However, support for the party in percentage terms declined compared to similar polls last October, with the party polling over 50 percent in just four of the eight regions electing regional legislatures.

State Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov, the executive director of United Russia, hurried today to put a brave face on the results.

"The number of the mandates that United Russia got against the total number of the mandates in this election is 68 percent. This result is much better than it was in October or March last year," he said.

In October, the ruling party, headed by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, polled more than 50 percent in all the regions that were conducting regionwide voting, while this time around, it managed to do so in only four of eight regions. The results were particularly low in Sverdlovsk Oblast (42 percent) and the Republic of Altai (43 percent).

In addition, the party lost two significant mayoral elections.

In the Far Eastern city of Irkutsk, the Communist-supported candidate, Viktor Kondrashov, trounced his United Russia opponent, Deputy Mayor Sergei Serebrennikov, polling 62 percent compared to 27.

In Ust-Ilimsk, also in Irkutsk Oblast, A Just Russia candidate Vladimir Tashkin polled more than 72 percent, compared to just 20 percent for his United Russia rival, Irina Bondarenko.

Criticized By Medvedev

In all eight regions that elected new legislatures, all four of the parties with seats in the State Duma will be represented. This development comes after President Dmitry Medvedev criticized the October regional elections, which left some legislatures with as few as two factions. As a result, the semiofficial opposition parties -- the Communist Party, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), and A Just Russia -- which publicly protested against the results in October generally expressed satisfaction with the latest round of elections. Overall, the Communists made the second-strongest showing, polling about 20 percent in most regions, while the LDPR and A Just Russia were neck-and-neck in most races with results hovering around 15 percent.

The elections were held against a background of rising protests, primarily over economic issues such as increases in housing, utilities, and transportation costs. The business daily "Kommersant" quoted an unidentified United Russia official as saying the results "look like a wave of protest voting."

United Russia announced plans to hold its own demonstrations in Moscow and other cities today, ostensibly to inform voters of their successes at the polls and to discuss shortcomings in its performance.

Nonetheless, United Russia's grip on political power across the country and at all levels continues to tighten. The party's election campaign was widely criticized by independent observers for being particularly aggressive. It appealed to local election commissions in numerous cases to disqualify candidates on multiple pretexts. It also benefited from earlier changes in election laws that gave it advantages in the distribution of mandates.

Widespread Irregularities

Lilya Shibanova, executive director of the independent Golos election-monitoring organization, complained of widespread irregularities in many elections, including in municipal voting in Yekaterinburg.

"There were massive violations in Yekaterinburg, including busing voters in to vote en masse. Buses were used in great quantities; polling stations were opened in shopping areas where sales were held as voting was going on, including the handing out of gifts," Shibanova says. "This was all done actively. In Yekaterinburg, there was a very high percentage of voting by absentee ballot."

Shibanova noted that as the number of political parties declines -- the liberal Yabloko party, for example, was disqualified from competing in Sverdlovsk Oblast and Kaluga Oblast -- the number of election monitors is also on the wane.

"While earlier at local elections there were as many as 10 to 12 observers," she says, "we now consider it good when there are at least three monitors. Overall, the level of public monitoring is declining as political competition declines."

Overall turnout in the March 14 poll was 42.6 percent. It was the last major election event in Russia before the next cycle of national elections begins, with voting for the State Duma in December 2011 and a presidential election to be held in March 2012.