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Putin’s party on track for parliamentary majority after crackdown on opposition

Critics claim fraud in ‘sham’ vote, after tech giants said threatened by authorities into removing candidate lists pushed by backers of jailed opposition chief Navalny

People vote during the last day of the three-day parliamentary and local elections in Saint Petersburg on September 19, 2021. (Photo by Olga MALTSEVA / AFP)
People vote during the last day of the three-day parliamentary and local elections in Saint Petersburg on September 19, 2021. (Photo by Olga MALTSEVA / AFP)

MOSCOW, Russia (AFP) — President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party was on track to win a strong majority in a parliamentary vote, results showed Monday, after an election that followed an unprecedented crackdown on the opposition.

With 50 percent of votes counted, United Russia was ahead with 46.11% of the vote, followed by the Communist Party with 21.40%.

The vote came in the wake of a clampdown that saw Putin’s best-known domestic foe Alexei Navalny jailed — after he returned to Russia following a poisoning he blames on the Kremlin — and his organizations banned as “extremist.”

In the lead-up to the election, all of Navalny’s top allies were arrested or fled the country, with anyone associated with his groups kept from running.

Navalny’s team had called for opposition supporters to back other candidates who could potentially defeat United Russia, most of them from the Communists, and results indicated the “Smart Voting” campaign may have had some success.

United Russia’s share of the vote was down from 54.2% in the last parliamentary election in 2016, while the Communists saw their support grow from 13.3%.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting of heads of member states at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit, held in Dushanbe, via video link at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow on September 17, 2021. (Photo by Alexey DRUZHININ / SPUTNIK / AFP)

E-vote delays

Voting by party list accounts for only half of the lower house State Duma’s 450 seats, however, and United Russia was dominating in the other half of seats assigned according to single-mandate races.

With 50% of those votes counted, United Russia candidates were ahead in at least 193 of the 225 seats.

United Russia held 334 Duma seats going into the election and if the trends continued it appeared likely to at least hold on to a two-thirds majority.

Three other parties appeared to have met the five percent threshold needed to enter parliament — the nationalist LDPR, the recently formed “New People” party, and “A Just Russia,” all with less than 10%.

United Russia’s general council secretary Andrei Turchak congratulated supporters at party headquarters on a “clean and honest victory.”

Members of a local electoral commission empty a ballot box at a polling station after the last day of the three-day parliamentary election, in Moscow, on September 19, 2021. (Photo by Alexander NEMENOV / AFP)

But Navalny’s allies said the vote was being falsified on a massive scale, pointing especially to repeated delays in releasing the results of electronic voting in liberal and opposition-friendly Moscow.

“We have rattled their political system. We forced them to either admit defeat or to falsify, in front of everyone, absolutely brazenly, without any shame. To admit moral bankruptcy,” key Navalny aide Leonid Volkov said during a live stream on YouTube.

Authorities had taken drastic measures to deter the “Smart Voting” campaign, which provided lists of candidates with the best hope of denying Kremlin-aligned politicians a seat.

Kremlin ‘blackmail’

The campaign’s website was shut down and on Friday Apple and Google removed the Smart Voting app from their stores, causing an uproar among the opposition who accused them of giving in to Kremlin “blackmail.”

Sources familiar with Google and Apple’s decision told AFP the move was taken under pressure from Russian authorities, including threats to arrest the tech giants’ local staff.

FILE: Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny gestures during a hearing on his charges for defamation in the Babuskinsky District Court in Moscow, Russia, February 16, 2021. (Babuskinsky District Court Press Service via AP)

The popular Telegram messenger also removed Navalny’s Smart Voting bot, and on Sunday Google Docs and YouTube videos containing the lists of recommended candidates were blocked.

Turnout was at 45% according to the latest figures released by the election commission on Sunday.

Critics had argued that online voting, new limits on election observers and the polls being spread over three days — a move officials said was to reduce coronavirus risks — all presented opportunities for fraud.

As of Sunday evening, independent election monitor Golos — which authorities branded a “foreign agent” ahead of the polls — had tracked over 4,900 reports of voting violations.

People visit Red Square during the last day of the three-day parliamentary and local elections in Moscow on September 19, 2021. (Photo by Alexander NEMENOV / AFP)

‘Trust’ in Putin

While 68-year-old Putin remains popular, United Russia has seen its support drop as living standards decline following years of economic stagnation.

“There is no one to vote for,” Andrei, a 33-year-old IT professional who declined to give his last name, told AFP in Moscow.

He cast his ballot in the “sham” elections, he said, to “at least show some kind of protest against the current government.”

But Anna Kartashova, a 50-year-old pharmaceutical company manager in Moscow, said she voted for United Russia because she “simply trusts” Putin.

“We just don’t see anyone else we can trust in the current political landscape,” she said.

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