Ruling United Russia party slapped in Moscow vote

The Kremlin-backed party loses a third of its seats, but still retains a comfortable majority

Photo: EPA Russian President Vladimir Putin casts his vote.

Russia's ruling United Russia party, which supports President Vladimir Putin, lost about one third of its seats in the Moscow city assembly at the local elections held last Sunday, according to final data cited by Russian news agencies. Nevertheless, the party retained its majority in the assembly, and its candidates for regional governors won in St Petersburg and in 15 other parts of the country.

United Russia won 25 of the Moscow assembly's 45 seats, final data showed. In the last Moscow election in 2014, it performed much better, winning 28 seats in its own name and a further 10 through independent candidates whom it had backed. But Putin's spokesman said the Kremlin considered that United Russia had done well despite the setback. “The party showed its political leadership,” Dmitry Peskov pointed out.

This time, all of United Russia's Moscow candidates were rebranded as independents in an apparent effort to distance them from a party, whose popularity is at a more than decade-long low. The Communist Party won 13 seats, up from 5, at the expense of United Russia, the liberal Yabloko Party won 4 seats, and the Fair Russia Party three.

Andrei Metelsky, who heads United Russias branch in Moscow, was the most high-profile of United Russia’s covert candidates to lose their seats on the council. The party described his election defeat to a little-known socialist backed by the Communist party as “unpleasant”. Sergei Sobyanin, the Kremlin-backed mayor of Moscow, said the elections were the most competitive in recent history. “Passions flared,” he pointed out.

The local elections outcome was closely watched after the exclusion of many opposition candidates triggered the biggest protests in nearly a decade. Public anger over more than five years of falling incomes and an unpopular hike in the pension age also helped fuel the Moscow protests, with the Communist Party benefiting most from the discontent. During the protests in July and August more than 2,500 people were arrested by baton-wielding riot police amid chaotic scenes around Red Square. On Monday Michelle Bachelet, the UN's human rights chief, called for an inquiry into allegations of excessive force by Russian police.

Prominent opposition politician Alexei Navalny and his allies saw the Moscow poll as an opportunity to make inroads against United Russia ahead of a national parliamentary election in 2021. Navalny's close allies were among those excluded from the Moscow vote and he had advised supporters to vote tactically for the candidates with the best chance of defeating United Russia. He saw the results as vindicating his strategy, though other activists were unhappy that he had asked people to hold their noses and vote for parties that cooperate with the Kremlin.

Last Sunday's local and regional elections took place across all of Russia's 11 time zones. United Russia also suffered a dramatic setback in an election for the Khabarovsk region's local parliament in the Far East, winning just two seats. The party also lost its majority in Irkutsk, in eastern Siberia.

There were multiple allegations of vote fraud across the country, with a voting urn reportedly being stolen from a polling station in St Petersburg, and in Tuva, near Russia's border with Mongolia, men on horseback opened fire at a van carrying election observers and journalists.

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