2021-09-19 23:33:46 Russian Election Shows Declining Support for Putin’s Party

Russian Election Shows Declining Support for Putin’s Party

MOSCOW, Russia — Early results in Russia’s parliamentary elections showed a rise in opposition sentiment toward President Vladimir V. Putin’s ruling party, despite the fact that it was expected to easily win.

The party, United Russia, received 44 percent of the vote in partial results broadcast by state television after three days of voting ended on Sunday, 10 percentage points less than in the previous election in 2016. In second place, the Communist Party received 22% of the vote, up from 13% in 2016.

Russian elections are not free and fair, and Parliament’s role in recent years has primarily been to rubber-stamp Kremlin initiatives while providing Mr. Putin with a veneer of democratic legitimacy. Over the weekend, videos of ballot stuffing and other obvious cases of fraud went viral on social media. However, supporters of imprisoned opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny had hoped that the elections would serve as a rebuke to Mr. Putin by consolidating the opposition vote.

The weekend elections took place in the midst of the Kremlin’s harsh crackdown on dissent and murmurs of popular discontent. Fearing a backlash at the polls, the authorities barred nearly all well-known opposition figures from running for Parliament, while also forcing many dissidents into exile and declaring popular independent media outlets to be “foreign agents.”

Election observers and Kremlin critics said the multi-day nature of the elections — measures officially put in place to reduce the spread of the coronavirus — increased the likelihood of fraud by making the process more difficult to monitor. And, given the system used to allocate the 450 seats in the Duma, United Russia could still maintain a two-thirds majority in the chamber despite receiving less than half of the votes.

The opposition’s already difficult battle was exacerbated by Google and Apple’s decisions to comply with Russian government demands to block access to Navalny-related content that was supposed to coordinate the protest vote. After the two tech behemoths removed a smartphone app associated with Mr. Navalny’s movement from their stores on Friday, Google went even further over the weekend, apparently complying with a government request to block YouTube videos and Google Docs files that Mr. Navalny’s allies were using to coordinate voting across the country’s 225 electoral districts.

Google did not respond to a request for comment on Sunday. Mr. Navalny’s supporters, who are organizing the protest vote campaign from abroad, said Google informed them that their content could be blocked due to a government request.

When users in Russia try to open one of the blocked videos, a YouTube message says, “This content is not available on this country domain due to a legal complaint from the government.”

Google’s recent compliance with Russia’s demands has been a remarkable concession for a company that takes pride in enabling the open exchange of information. Even as the Kremlin has rolled back democratic freedoms, Google’s products, particularly YouTube, have helped provide avenues for free expression in Russia.

A person familiar with Google’s decision told The New York Times on Friday that specific threats of prosecution against some of the company’s more than 100 employees in Russia compelled the company to remove the Navalny smartphone app. In recent months, Russian courts have declared Mr. Navalny’s movement to be extremist and his “smart voting” campaign to be illegal.

Nonetheless, Mr. Navalny’s supporters have been pushing a strategy known as “smart voting” in order to pool opposition votes and elect as many challengers to United Russia as possible, regardless of the challengers’ political views. Despite Google and Apple’s compliance with the Russian government’s demands, their campaign gained support among opposition-minded voters, many of whom were able to learn which candidate the “smart voting” campaign supported in their district.

“This is an election without a choice, and while they can make up whatever result is required for them, ‘smart voting’ is a good mechanism,” said Philipp Samsonov, a 32-year-old photographer in Moscow. “I hope that one day I will be able to vote with my heart.”

Mr. Samsonov stated that he planned to vote for the candidate chosen by the Navalny team in his district — in his case, a Communist — as the person with the best chance of defeating the candidate of the ruling party. Mr. Samsonov also stated that he planned to vote on Sunday evening to reduce the possibility of something going wrong with his ballot.

It was too early to tell whether Mr. Navalny’s smart voting campaign had paid off Sunday evening, with early results providing little clarity on how individual candidates fared on a district-by-district basis. However, the increase in support for the Communists and the decline in support for United Russia reflected an increase in Russian discontent. On a YouTube broadcast Sunday evening, a top aide to Mr. Navalny, Leonid Volkov, described United Russia’s likely loss of seats as progress in the strategy of eroding Mr. Putin’s hold on power.

“To put it mildly, this is a significant shift in the Russian Federation’s political landscape,” Mr. Volkov said.

The leader of Russia’s Communist Party, Gennadi A. Zyuganov, said there had been a “huge amount” of violations in the elections and warned of protests in the coming days — a notable statement given that the Communists are typically loyal to Mr. Putin on key issues.

“I can’t rule out that all of this will lead to mass protests,” Mr. Zyuganov tweeted on Saturday. “I am confident that people will not accept a blatant substitution of their preferred option.”

In St. Petersburg, police removed some independent election observers from polling stations and detained them before the votes were counted. Ksenia Frolova, one of the observers, was detained after filing numerous complaints about irregularities.

“We discovered that the same person voted multiple times at different polling stations,” Ms. Frolova, an 18-year-old biology student, explained over the phone shortly after being released from a police station. “I’m morally drained. You just have the impression that none of your complaints were taken seriously.”

Last year, widespread fraud in neighboring Belarus’ presidential election sparked massive street protests, an outcome that analysts say the Kremlin is determined to avoid in Russia. Throughout the weekend, riot police officers were stationed in buses around central Moscow, but there were no significant protests.

During the election, the authorities appeared to be going to great lengths to get the typical United Russia base to the polls: public sector workers, military and security personnel, and pensioners. On Friday, groups of men in civilian clothes, all with similar, tightly cropped haircuts, lined up outside a polling station covering the Russian Ministry of Defense in central Moscow.

Some admitted to being military personnel and that they had been “strongly advised” by their commanders to vote on Friday. Others claimed to have been given time off to vote before the weekend, which they intended to spend out of town.

Many Russians continue to back Mr. Putin. Tatyana Kolosova, 46, a teacher outside a Moscow polling station, said she voted against United Russia to bring some “competition into the political sphere.” She expressed hope that a government shake-up following the elections would result in more efforts to reduce unemployment and support private business.

She, on the other hand, dismissed Mr. Navalny as a “enemy of our country” and promised to vote for Mr. Putin if he ran for a fifth term as president in 2024, recalling the relative poverty and chaos of the 1990s before he came to power.

“I am grateful to God for providing us with such a leader,” she said.

From London, Adam Satariano contributed reporting.

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Russian Election Shows Declining Support for Putin’s Party