MOSCOW -- Sidelined from big-time politics, Russia's opposition threw its energies into this year's municipal elections hoping to steal a march on the Kremlin from the grassroots up. But as voting progressed on September 10, they were looking with concern at an anemic turnout and "anomalous" home-voting figures.
By 6 p.m., election authorities said turnout in Moscow's municipal elections was a meager 12 percent, while opposition leader Dmitry Gudkov alleged that unusually large home-voting figures in Moscow -- four times higher than in previous years -- indicate vote manipulations.
"This is where violations are hidden: the signatures in home-voter statements don't match those in the election register. Observers sent to apartments see that social-welfare workers are compelling elderly people to vote," he wrote in a Facebook post. "And those who vote of their own accord are holding [United Russia ruling party] flyers that were handed to them earlier."
Ilya Yashin, a prominent opposition politician running for a seat in a Moscow district council, wrote on Facebook that observers he has spoken to echo Gudkov's complaint: "Elderly voters everywhere say that they have just been visited by a social worker who told them the surnames of the United Russia candidates whom they have to vote for."
Anticorruption crusader and prominent opposition leader Aleksei Navalny made similar allegations in a blog post, calling the turnout “catastrophically low” and the result of a “deliberate strategy” signed off by Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin.
He alleged that city authorities had used social workers to organize home votes for elderly voters and the disabled -- even if they clearly didn’t want them – hoping to press them into voting for the authorities.
He posted a video published by the Golos election monitor apparently showing a 90-year-old woman with bad sight and hearing in her home surrounded by people asking her to put on her glasses to read the candidates and vote. She almost cries, protesting that she has no idea who the candidates are, before they finally leave her alone.
By evening, the Yabloko party had called for the head of the Moscow Election Commission to be dismissed for "deliberately reducing" turnout.
In a press release on the opposition party's website, Nikolai Rybakov, deputy chairman of the party, said Moscow's Sobyanin bears direct "political responsibility" for the low turnout, and that the capital's top election official, Valentin Gorbunov, should be fired for carrying out an order to keep it to a minimum.
Myriad elections are being held on September 10 in 82 Russian regions. They include votes for regional governors, city and regional councils, and municipal lawmakers. Although municipal lawmakers have only limited real power, the municipal elections in Moscow have been watched closely as observers look for clues to gauge the public mood in the capital ahead of presidential elections in March 2018.
In Moscow, Gudkov, an opposition politician and former State Duma deputy, who was expelled from the pro-Kremlin A Just Russia party in 2013, has backed over 1,000 Muscovites -- many of them young activists and students -- to challenge for 1,502 seats on district councils. They aim to win enough mandates to nominate Gudkov as their candidate in mayoral elections due in September 2018.
On September 10, Gudkov accused the authorities of deliberately hushing up the elections, and called on Muscovites to cast their ballots and to call on their friends to do the same. "Turnout is still really low – and that is really dangerous," he said on Facebook. “Wake up your parents, phone your neighbors, canvas your acquaintances. Today, everything is in our hands. At the elections in [Moscow district] Shchukino last year, 12 votes decided everything.”
Those by-elections last September handed a majority of 8 out of 15 municipal council mandates to independent candidates not allied with the Kremlin.
Gudkov’s municipal election candidates – who have gone to door to door meeting voters -- have consistently said the biggest barrier to success is low turnout, which, they allege, favors incumbents backed by the so-called "administrative resource" – whereby officials use their power and influence to inflate the vote for candidates backed by the authorities.
A low turnout, says the opposition, means that this "resource" carries more weight.
Amid accusations that city authorities deliberately hushed up the elections, Human Rights Ombudsman Tatyana Moskalkova told Novaya Gazeta she would probe why so little information about the elections had been circulated. She said she understood there had been a direct "order" to remove all information about polling stations and elections from stairwells.
The potential for a low turnout in the capital is higher than last time in 2012 when municipal elections fell on the same day as the presidential elections and thus had high turnout.
Speaking to RFE/RL's Russian Service on September 10, Ilya Azar, a prominent Russian journalist who is running in the municipal election race, said he believes 100 opposition candidates could win mandates, but warned turnout could be as low as 10 percent.
"This is really not a lot. The authorities have done everything for the turnout to be this [small]," he said. "The entire district press reported nothing about the elections. The candidates themselves have had to inform voters about the elections, or else they would not have known about them."
"The authorities are banking on a minimal turnout that will consist of people whom they have brought to the ballot box. That is to say, city workers, public-sector workers, soldiers, street-sweepers and so on."