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Russians Vote In Gubernatorial Runoffs As Pro-Kremlin Candidates Face Pushback

RFE/RL September 22, 2018

Russian voters in two regions head to the polls on September 23 in gubernatorial runoffs that have left the ruling United Russia party scrambling to avoid defeat for its pro-Kremlin candidates.

The ballots in the far-eastern Khabarovsk Krai and central Vladimir region are among four gubernatorial runoffs after incumbents or acting governors from United Russia failed to secure first-round victories in September 9 elections.

Those results have raised questions about the Kremlin's ability to engineer popular support for its candidates in regions where, under President Vladimir Putin's highly centralized political system, local issues and rivalries can prove problematic to micromanage from Moscow.

In one of the runoffs held on September 16, the Kremlin-backed candidate in the far-eastern Primorsky Krai surged ahead at the end of the ballot count thanks to what election observers and opposition forces call a brazenly illegal effort to manipulate the results in Tarasenko's favor.

The results of that ballot between Acting Governor Andrei Tarasenko of United Russia, who met with Putin shortly before the vote, and Communist Party candidate Andrei Ishchenko have now been invalidated, with election officials citing "serious violations."

In addition to the September 23 votes in the Khabarovsk Krai and the Vladimir region, another gubernatorial runoff had been scheduled the same day in the Siberian region of Khakasia.

But incumbent Governor Viktor Zimin, who was appointed acting regional head by Putin in 2013 and won election later that same year, quit the race on September 21, citing poor health.

Zimin, the United Russia candidate, had finished well behind Communist candidate Valentin Konovalov in the first-round of voting on September 9, trailing his challenger by more than 12 points.

The regional election commission in Khakasia on September 22 announced that the runoff would now be held on October 7.

The elections come amid widespread discontent with a Kremlin-backed plan to raise the retirement age that triggered waves of street protests and has dented Putin's approval ratings after its unveiling earlier this year.

In the September 23 runoff in the Khabarovsk Krai, Governor Vyacheslav Shport of United Russia faces Sergei Furgal, a federal lawmaker from the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) who edged out the incumbent in the first round but did not secure enough votes for an outright win.

The United Russia candidate in the Vladimir region, incumbent Governor Svetlana Orlova, faces Vladimir Sipyagin of the LDPR after beating him by five points in the first round with 36.4 percent.

Kremlin critics consider both the LDPR and the Communist Party pliant tools in Putin's ruling system, and they back Putin's initiatives with some frequency -- particularly on foreign policy.

But the rivalry on the regional level is very real, and any LDPR or Communist victory is embarrassing for Putin and United Russia, which dominates politics nationwide.

Amid reports of intense behind-the-scenes horse-trading between Kremlin-backed forces and their challengers in the regions, Shport publicly offered Furgal to come work under him in the Khabarovsk Krai's government.

Speaking in a televised address, Furgal agreed to the offer on September 17 -- but declined to quit the race.

Meanwhile, Orlova, the incumbent Vladimir governor from United Russia, appeared to offer voters some introspection in a video she released days before the September 23 runoff.

"It seems like I tried -- and the results weren't bad. So why wasn't I able to reach many of you? You know how I answer that to myself? It means I did something wrong. I miscalculated somewhere," Orlova said.

Russian political analyst Mikhail Vinogradov said Kremlin-loyal candidates in the runoffs are "freaking out" because they are "used to the authorities winning."

"This is a naturally jittery situation in the conditions of falling approval ratings for authorities," Vinogradov said in a radio interview with Kommersant-FM.

He added, however, that "this trend has not appeared in all regions, but rather only in four regions out of more than 20 that had gubernatorial elections."

With reporting by Current Time TV

Source: https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-governor-elections-united- russia-putin-communist-ldpr/29504248.html

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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