Allegations of widespread election fraud marred the first two days of Russia’s three-day election as jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny’s Smart Voting bot disappeared from the popular messaging app Telegram following similar moves by Apple and Google.
The ruling Kremlin-backed United Russia party is expected to win the September 17-19 parliamentary vote, following a clampdown by authorities on dissent that eliminated vocal Kremlin critics from the ballot and crushed independent media.
On the first day of voting alone, the Golos independent election-monitoring group recorded some 2,000 procedural violations indicating votes were being bought. It also reported violations including vote-buying and lax measures for guarding ballots at polling stations.
According to Golos, mass arrivals of people in uniform at polling stations were widespread, suggesting that the government was mobilizing state employees to ensure a victory for the ruling party.
WATCH: How Navalny's 'Smart Voting' Works
There were also reports of people voting multiple times, as well as dozens of reported incidents of ballot stuffing.
The head of Russia's Communist Party also alleged on September 18 widespread violations in the election. Gennady Zyuganov said the Central Elections Commission (CEC) must respond to reports of “a number of absolutely egregious facts,” including ballot-stuffing in several regions.
Ella Pamfilova, head of the CEC, said 6,203 ballots had been held invalid in five entities of the Russian Federation because of irregularities, including ballot-box stuffing in the Bryansk region, poor quality of ballots in Mordovia, and incorrect registrations in Moscow.
A “really shocking number” of videos showing ballot stuffing have surfaced, political analyst Andras Toth-Czifra tweeted, adding: “And this was the first day of the election, and online rigging is not even visible (but based on past experiences, very likely).”
Media in St. Petersburg reported on suspected cases of “carousel voting,” in which voters cast ballots at several different polling stations, while the news website Znak said a resident of the Moscow region was offering 1,000 rubles ($15) to people who voted for United Russia.
In Kirov, election organizers were visiting elderly people who couldn't leave their homes to go to polling stations, RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir Service reported.
A woman in her late 80s identified as Valentina T. said she would probably vote for United Russia after the organizers suggested she do so, saying, “I don’t know anyone else.”
Overall turnout at polling stations was 31.5 percent as of 8 p.m. Moscow time on September 18, the press service of the CEC reported.
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 assembly and gubernatorial elections. Preliminary results are expected shortly after polls close on September 19.
The election has been marred by efforts to suppress Navalny’s Smart Voting -- a tool promoted by the opposition as a way for voters opposed to President Vladimir Putin to identify candidates who have the best chance to defeat a United Russia candidate.
In recent months, authorities have unleashed a sweeping crackdown against Navalny’s allies.
As the vote kicked off on September 17, Navalny’s election-guide app disappeared from the Apple and Google online stores in what his associates slammed as censorship and bowing to pressure, and Telegram removed the Smart Voting bot after the company announced it would "limit the functioning of bots associated with election campaigns."
Telegram founder Pavel Durov announced late on September 17 that removing election-related bots was related to Russia's ban on campaigning during voting.
"We consider this practice legitimate and urge Telegram users to respect it," said the Russian founder of one of the world’s most popular messaging apps.
But he added that "the blocking of applications by Apple and Google creates a dangerous precedent that will affect freedom of speech in Russia and around the world."
After Telegram removed the Smart Voting bot, a Twitter account associated with Navalny posted links to Google Docs with recommended candidates, saying they were their last "remaining" tools, according to AFP.
Ivan Zhdanov, one of several lawyers working with Navalny, tweeted that Navalny’s team is considering suing Apple and Google for removing Smart Voting from their platforms in Russia.
According to media reports, Google's and Apple's decision was taken under pressure from Russian authorities, including threats of serious criminal charges and arrest of local staff.
Mobilization Of Voters
Meanwhile, Stanislav Andreychuk, co-chairman of Golos, told Current Time that it appears state employees were coerced into voting while they were at work, even if that meant not casting a ballot where they were registered.
“We understand that when such a mobilization takes place, it is a mobilization among those groups of voters who, in the opinion of the authorities, are most loyal to them,” he said.
Election officials said the vote needed to be spread over three days as a health precaution due to the COVID-19 pandemic, although crowded polls seemed to suggest that may not be a high concern.
Opposition activists and some liberal lawmakers said extending the vote is intended to allow the Kremlin to manipulate turnout and possibly engineer a desired outcome.
Aside from the decision to hold voting over three days, the Central Election 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 online.
Russians can vote online in seven Russian regions this year, with critics saying such voting may be subject to manipulation.
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.
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.
Even the state-run pollster VTsIOM found United Russia’s support hovering around 29 percent.
By contrast, Putin, who is not a party member, retains an approval rating of around 60 percent and has no genuine political rival.
WATCH: Do Russians Have Real Choices In The Parliamentary Elections? Voters Tell Us
However, his popularity has slipped in recent years, driven down partly due to sweeping pension reforms 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.
Russians have also been frustrated by the cycles of restrictions and conflicting public health guidance regarding 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; 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.
Besides United Russia, 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.
Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov on September 18 called on the authorities to respond to reports of “a number of absolutely egregious facts,” including ballot-stuffing in several regions.
He said the party, which is expected to pick up the biggest share of any seats lost by United Russia, had tallied at least 44 incidents of voting violations.