Russia's top election official has recommended that regional authorities annul the result of a disputed gubernatorial runoff vote in the Primorye region, where the Communist Party cried foul after the Kremlin-backed incumbent surged ahead at the end of the ballot count.
Central Election Commission (TsIK) chief Ella Pamfilova made the proposal on September 19, saying electoral authorities have concluded that the closely contested vote was marred by "serious violations," including ballot-box stuffing and altering records of the count. She said culprits should be punished for fraud that "shocked" election officials.
"We propose...recommending that the election commission of the Primorye region declare the result of the...gubernatorial election invalid," Pamfilova said.
If the regional authorities do so, which is highly likely because provincial officials in Russia rarely defy the central government in Moscow, she said a new election would be held in three months.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov made clear that President Vladimir Putin favors annulling the results, saying the adminstration "certainly appreciates and supports the CEC's position."
The regional electoral commission said it would announce a decision on September 20, and media reports said it would be the first time a runoff has been annulled in Russia since 1996.
The TsIK recommendation came amid tension in the Far Eastern region, whose capital is Vladivostok, over a last-minute reversal in which the candidate from the Kremlin-controlled United Russia party, acting Governor Andrei Tarasenko, suddenly erased Communist rival Andrei Ishchenko's substantial lead and surged ahead.
Hundreds of people protested in Vladivostok on September 17 and the Communist Party was preparing lawsuits claiming that the vote count was falsified in several districts.
Pamfilova, who listed a host of violations that also included vote-buying and forcing people to vote, said that electoral officials are unable to determine whether the declared results of the vote count reflected "the will of the people" in 13 of the sprawling Pacific Coast region's polling districts.
The "abuses and violations in the final stage of the second round -- they shocked us, of course," Pamfilova said.
Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov called for a criminal investigation and said that Ishchenko should be acknowledged as the winner of the runoff. But both Ishchenko and Tarasenko said they would take part in a new election if the runoff results are annulled.
The September 16 runoff was thrown into dispute in the final stages of the vote count early the following day.
With 95 percent of the ballots counted, Tarasenko was nearly 6 percentage points behind Ischenko, but officials said that once the ballot count reached 99.1 percent, official tallies showed the acting governor ahead of his challenger by a total of 7,644 votes -- a turnaround the the Communists alleged was the result of fraud.
United Russia, in turn, accused the Communists of violations including vote buying.
Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov appealed to Putin to look into the situation and promised to hold a nationwide protest action on September 22 if there was no progress by then.
Kremlin critics consider the Communist Party a pliant part of Putin's ruling system, and it supports Putin's initiatives with some frequency, but the rivalry on the regional level is very real and any Communist victory is embarrassing for Putin and United Russia, which dominates politics nationwide.
Out of 21 Russian regions in which gubernatorial elections were held on September 9, the Primorye region was one of four where United Russia faced runoffs after failing to win 50 percent of the vote. The other three runoffs will be held on September 23.
The September 9 elections were a test of Putin's government as it seeks to raise the retirement age for men and women by five years, a highly unpopular move that has prompted protests across the country. Putin met with Tarasenko ahead of the runoff and told him that "everything is going to be fine," according to the transcript on the Kremlin website.
Both Ishchenko and Tarasenko said on September 19 that they would take part in a new election if the runoff results are annulled.