Electoral authorities in Russia's Far Eastern Primorye region annulled the result of a disputed gubernatorial runoff vote, after the country's top election official said it was marred by "serious violations."
A total of 12 members of Primorye's election commission on September 20 voted in favor of the annulment of the result of the closely contested vote in the region, where the Communist Party cried foul after the Kremlin-backed incumbent surged ahead at the end of the ballot count. One election commission member voted against the proposal.
It is the first time a runoff has been annulled in Russia since 1996, according to media reports.
A new election is to be held within three months of the annulled September 16 vote.
The runoff was thrown into dispute in the final stages of the vote count early on September 17, triggering tension in the Far Eastern region.
In a last-minute reversal, 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.
"We believe that in the circumstances it is not possible to reliably understand the result of the will of the people, which means we can't declare either of the candidates elected," Primorye election commission head Tatyana Gladkikh said on September 20.
Tarasenko called the decision to have a rerun "fair," telling Russian media, "There have been too many complaints."
However, Ishchenko said he will appeal the decision in court, claiming he should be declared the winner of the original vote.
Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov has called for a criminal investigation and appealed to President Vladimir Putin to look into the situation. He also promised to hold a nationwide protest action on September 22 if there was no progress by then.
Hundreds of supporters already held a protest in Primorye's capital, Vladivostok, on September 17.
In Moscow, Central Election Commission (TsIK) chief Ella Pamfilova welcomed the decision of the regional election commission, saying that "there was no other way out in this situation."
On September 19, Pamfilova recommended that the commission annul the vote result, citing a number of violations, which included ballot-box stuffing, vote-buying, forcing people to vote, and altering records of the count.
She also said that culprits should be punished for fraud that "shocked" election officials.
Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the administration "certainly appreciates and supports the TsIK's position."
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, Primorye 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.