Among the pro-Kremlin candidates to fall in Moscow's city council elections over the weekend, Andrei Metelsky was arguably the most prominent scalp collected by the opposition.
Metelsky, after all, is the leader of United Russia’s Moscow branch and a member of its national presidium, and opposition leader Aleksei Navalny had made him a high-profile target in his “smart voting” drive to unseat the party’s candidates.
But as Metelsky’s impending defeat by a Communist Party candidate in eastern Moscow’s voting district No. 15 was becoming clear after the polls closed, strange things were afoot at the local election commission: Officials weren’t entering the results into Russia’s centralized voting system.
And they weren’t giving any explanations, observers on the scene said, triggering concerns that officials were trying to rewrite the voting tallies and hand the September 8 election to Metelsky.
“It started looking like sabotage,” Andrei Zayakin, a physicist and opposition activist who was working as an observer at the district election commission headquarters, told RFE/RL.
Zayakin was among several activists who scrambled to publicize in real time the anomalous activity at the election commission after the polls closed -- including long delays in submitting the results and the sudden absence of the local commission head for several hours.
Activists began circulating photographs of initial voting tallies in the district showing the incumbent Metelsky losing to Communist challenger Sergei Savostyanov -- just in case they differed from the official final results that would be published later.
'Running Around And Doing Nothing'
Things began to get weird at the District No. 15 election commission at around 11 p.m. local time, three hours after the polls had closed, Zayakin told RFE/RL. “It was clear that no one was entering the voting data into the central information system,” he said.
The head of the district election commission -- Olga Ogiyevskaya -- was nowhere in sight. “No one could produce a plausible reason for her absence,” Zayakin said.
An official trained to enter the voting results into the system would not give an explanation of what was going on, Zayakin added.
That official “was supposed to start entering the data. She was just running around and not doing anything,” he said.
Zayakin posted a video on Facebook showing the woman walking away from him and closing a door behind her as the activist asked whose authorization she was waiting for to begin submitting the voting tallies.
The lack of results from the district, meanwhile, began drawing the attention and suspicion of those following the election in the media. The state-owned Moscow 24 network went through preliminary results of each Moscow district, but skipped over Metelsky’s.
Later, Moscow 24 showed Metelsky as leading in the preliminary tally.
Meanwhile, Savostyanov, a former federal judge, accused one polling station of falsifying ballots “in order to save Metelsky from a crushing defeat.”
'She Looked Like Walking Death'
Ogiyevskaya, head of the district election commission, finally returned to the voting headquarters in the early hours of September 10, according to Zayakin and Maria Kaplan, an election commission member who was warning about possible shenanigans with the vote count in real time on election day.
Kaplan said Ogiyevskaya appeared pale and weak, while Zayakin said she could barely walk upright and was “creeping along the wall, covering her face.”
“She looked like walking death,” Zayakin said, adding that there was no indication the official had sought medical attention.
Calls by RFE/RL to a listed phone number for Ogiyevskaya yielded an automatic recording saying the number could not be reached at the moment.
Following her return to headquarters after her unexplained absence, officials began entering the results into the centralized system, Zayakin and Kaplan said.
Yekaterina Vinokurova, a well-known journalist with Russia’s state-backed RT network and a member of President Vladimir Putin's advisory council on human rights, wrote on Facebook that she had raised the issue of the strange events at Moscow’s No. 15 voting district in real time with Russian elections chief Ella Pamfilova, and that Pamfilova had taken the district “under control.”
Pamfilova’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on September 9.
Georgy Alburov, a top Navalny aide, and the independent vote monitor Golos both noted that there were no official results published for the voting district as of 3 a.m. Moscow time.
But they appeared in the ensuing hours, showing Savostyanov winning with 12,955 votes compared to Metelsky’s 9,790. Metelsky conceded defeat later on September 9.
Metelsky said his loss may have been due in part to a recent expose by Navalny highlighting pricey Austrian real estate linked to his family, Interfax reported.
United Russia secretary Andrei Turchak was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying that Metelsky’s defeat was “unpleasant” but that the party will stick by him.