Two days of early voting have begun in many regions across Russia that are holding local elections ahead of the main and final day of balloting on September 13.
Officially, the government introduced the two days of early voting as a measure to thwart the further spread of the coronavirus. However, critics of authoritarian President Vladimir Putin argue it is part of an effort to falsify the results in favor of the ruling United Russia party.
The independent election-monitoring group Golos, in a report issued in July, found that lawmakers have “used the epidemiological situation as an excuse to make the electoral system even more opaque and subject to manipulation, including direct falsifications.”
“The current elections are being held under the worst legislative framework of the last 25 years,” the report concluded.
Elections are being held in 41 regions. Eighteen of them will select governors; 11 will choose regional legislatures; 22 cities will vote for municipal legislatures; and there will be a host of other local elections. In addition, four by-elections are being held for vacant seats in the State Duma.
About 35 million voters, some one-third of the national total, are eligible to cast their ballots.
Analysts have depicted the elections as a test for an embattled United Russia and a bellwether for Duma elections set for 2021.
Putin’s popularity rating has been in decline for a number of months, particularly in the wake of a Kremlin-driven effort earlier this year to rewrite the constitution in order to make it possible for Putin to remain in power until 2036.
United Russia is even less popular, with just 31 percent of Russians expressing a willingness to vote for it, according to research by the independent Levada Center polling agency released on September 7.
The party’s image has been battered by its leading role in conducting a controversial national plebiscite on the constitutional revisions, a much-reviled pension reform that raised retirement ages, unanswered allegations of massive corruption at the local and national levels, and public discontent with the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.
In addition, the elections are being held in the context of weeks of massive protests in the Siberian region of Khabarovsk against the Kremlin’s removal of a popular governor who was elected in a 2018 landslide over a longtime United Russia incumbent; more than a month of protests in neighboring Belarus against a disputed presidential election that gave President Alyaksandr Lukashenka a sixth term; and the August 20 poisoning of liberal opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, who is currently hospitalized in Berlin from the suspected ingestion of a Soviet-developed Novichok nerve toxin.
Navalny and his supporters have developed a system called “smart voting,” which is aimed at undoing United Russia’s stranglehold on political power. Under the system, voters can enter their address into a special app, which will then give them a list of the candidates deemed most likely to defeat their United Russia rivals regardless of their party affiliation.
With reporting by AFP and Meduza