Russians began heading to polling stations across the country in the first of three days of voting expected to be dominated by the Kremlin-backed ruling United Russia party after a clampdown by authorities on dissent that almost completely ruled out opposition candidates.
The last polling stations in the Baltic Sea exclave of Kaliningrad opened in the morning of September 17, nine hours after the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Far East kicked off the vote in the vast country, which spans 11 time zones.
All 450 seats in the lower house of parliament, or State Duma, are up for grabs in the vote, which is being held alongside local polls in dozens of regions, including regional assemblies and gubernatorial elections.
Preliminary results are expected shortly after polls close on September 19.
As the vote kicked off, Aleksei Navalny’s Smart Voting application disappeared from the Apple and Google online stores in what the jailed opposition politician’s associates called a “tremendous act of censorship.”
Navalny's team used the application to promote candidates other than those proposed by the Kremlin-backed United Russia party amid an unprecedented crackdown on opposition and independent media.
Election officials said the vote needed to be spread over three days to prevent crowding because of the COVID-19 pandemic that has ravaged Russia, despite it being the first country in the world to approve a vaccine.
Opposition activists and some liberal lawmakers say the move was part of a series of efforts by the Kremlin to manipulate turnout and engineer a plausible majority victory for United Russia.
Reports on social media showed lines at some polling stations. One source close to the government told the independent news outlet Meduza that many state employees were told to cast their votes early.
Others posted unverified videos that appear to show incidents of people casting multiple ballots.
Aside from the decision to hold voting over three days, the Central Elections Commission has made other tweaks to voting rules, such as sharply limiting international observers, limiting live-stream camera feeds from polling stations, and pushing for people in some regions to vote electronically, rather than in person.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said in August it would not send elections observers for the first time in nearly three decades due to "major limitations" imposed by Russian authorities.
Golos, an independent vote monitoring group, said it expects "big fraud and falsifications” during the vote.
Authorities have also moved to block the election’s biggest wild card: the Smart Voting initiative backed by jailed corruption crusader Aleksei Navalny, which aims to erode United Russia’s stranglehold on national politics.
Navalny's spokeswoman, Kira Yarmysh, tweeted on September 17 that the application had disappeared from Apple and Google online stores.
"This is, of course, a tremendous act of censorship. It's a pity that at the moment of standoff between honest people and the corrupt regime, these companies played into the latter's hands," Yarmysh wrote.
Neither of the two U.S. tech giants has immediately commented on the situation.
Another close associate of Navalny, Ivan Zhdanov, called on those voters who have already uploaded the app to their devices to share information with others on the candidates being recommended by the system.
Polls before the election by the independent Levada Center show a majority of Russians were unhappy with how the Duma was functioning.
Polls show even deeper disdain with United Russia, a nominally independent party that is in fact closely linked to guidance from the Kremlin and the powerful presidential administration.
United Russia holds a supermajority in the chamber, but its popularity is currently the lowest in the nearly two decades it has been in existence, saddled with the widespread belief that the party is a vehicle for graft and patronage.
Even the state-run pollster VTsIOM found United Russia’s support hovering around 29 percent.
By contrast, Putin, who is not a member of the party, retains wide popularity. However, his popularity has slipped in recent years, driven down partly due to sweeping pension reform passed after his reelection in 2018, and perceptions that high-level corruption among government insiders is rampant and unchecked.
Wages have stagnated for a wide swath of the population, as the economy struggles with Western economic sanctions, higher taxes, mounting inflation, and fallout from the pandemic.
United Russia’s dismal approval ratings have posed a challenge for Kremlin domestic policy advisers, some of whom fear the party could lose its supermajority or otherwise suffer a legitimacy crisis with voter apathy.
"It is the Russian regime, rather than the public, which needs the elections," Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, said in an online commentary. “They serve to validate the regime’s legality and legitimacy, and also keep the so-called majority relatively mobilized.”
Three other parties currently have seats in the Duma, plus two seats held by lawmakers from two obscure parties.
The strongest is the Communist Party, which retains a strong following among older Russians. The two others are the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, headed by the flamboyant Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and A Just Russia, which this year merged with another relatively unknown party headed by a popular nationalist writer.
All three parties are nominally in opposition to United Russia, but in reality, they rarely vote against majority initiatives or those explicitly lobbied for by the Kremlin.
A loss of a supermajority could make it more difficult for the Duma to ram through major legislation, such as constitutional amendments. That, in turn, would potentially complicate the run-up to the 2024 presidential election, when Putin’s current term is scheduled to end.
The Duma last year passed constitutional amendments that opened the door for Putin to stay in power beyond 2024. He has not indicated if he will.
Still, half of the Duma’s 450 seats are apportioned by party list, as opposed to single-mandate districts, which gives United Russia a formidable advantage.
“The Kremlin will get what it wanted: the Duma as an institute of support for a political system that is entering a stage not of transition, but effectively another reset in 2024,” Kolesnikov said.
Navalny, who is the Kremlin’s most potent domestic critic, has pushed Smart Voting as a way to chip away at United Russia’s dominance. The initiative helps guide voters to support candidates who have the best chance of defeating United Russia candidates, even if the candidate comes from the current major political parties, like the Communists.
Navalny has been in prison since January, when he was arrested upon his return from Germany where he had been recuperating from nerve-agent poisoning he blames on the Kremlin.
His foundation and political network were later designated an “extremist organization,” which barred the politician's allies from participating in elections.
Ahead of the election, Navalny urged Russians to avoid apathy and vote pro-Kremlin candidates out of power.
“If the United Russia party succeeds, our country will face another five years of poverty, five years of daily repression, and five wasted years,” a message on Navalny’s Instagram account read.
Russians have also been frustrated by the cycles of restrictions and conflicting public-health guidance regarding the coronavirus. The country is going through a third wave of infections and deaths. Nearly 1.6 million cases have been reported since the pandemic began, and nearly 28,100 deaths have been reported. The real number of infections and deaths is believed to be higher.
The country’s vaccination effort is flagging badly, with many people deeply skeptical, despite Russia approving Sputnik V, the world’s first COVID-19 vaccine last summer.
Meanwhile, multiple independent media outlets have been shut down or harassed in recent months after authorities targeted them for being "foreign agents,” leaving state-run media in a dominate position to control information.
One of the more closely watched governor races is being held in the Far Eastern region of Khabarovsk, where the Kremlin last year ousted the popular local governor, Sergei Furgal, prompting months of street protests.