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Kremlin-Backed United Russia Takes Early Lead In Duma Vote Amid Tampering Allegations

By RFE/RL's Russian Service September 19, 2021

MOSCOW -- The Kremlin-backed ruling United Russia party was on track to a comfortable victory in Russia's lower house of parliament, after a three-day voting process that was marred by irregularities and allegations of ballot tampering.

Hours after the last polls closed on September 19, the Central Election Commission said that with almost 25 percent of ballots counted, United Russia, which strongly backs President Vladimir Putin, had won just over 44 percent of the vote for the new State Duma.

That was followed by the Communist Party with about 22 percent and the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party with around 8.5 percent. Two other parties, A Just Russia, and a newcomer party, New People, had received around 7 percent and 6.5 percent, respectively.

An exit poll by INSOMAR predicted United Russia would win 45.2 percent of the vote, with the Communists at 21 percent, and the Liberal Democratic Party at 8.7 percent.

The results of electronic, online voting have not yet been tallied. One of Navalny's top lieutenants, Leonid Volkov, suggested that authorities planned to manipulate online voting in favor of ruling party candidates, to the detriment of opposition candidates, particularly in liberal-leaning cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Gennady Gudkov, who was kicked out of the Duma in 2012 for what he said was punishment for his independent stance, argued that the Communists had in fact won the election, and authorities were deliberately delaying the electronic tally.

The party "surpassed the party of power," he said in a post to Twitter. "That is why now there is a delay with the protocols.... Yes, new technologies are being used: electronic fakes!"

The elections lacked a significant opposition presence after authorities declared organizations linked to imprisoned Aleksei Navalny, the Kremlin's most vocal critic, to be extremist. The voting was also marred by numerous reports of violations, including ballot-stuffing.

Due to the system of party-list voting combined with single-mandate voting districts, it wasn't immediately clear how the results would translate into a breakdown of seats in the new Duma.

Half of the Duma's 450 seats are apportioned by party lists, while the other half are chosen by individual races. Election officials said early results showed United Russia candidates leading in 130 of those single-constituency seats.

United Russia, which currently holds 334 seats in the 450-seat Duma, is looking to keep its supermajority in the legislature, which allows it to change the constitution. But the party is deeply unpopular, and surveys from independent pollsters have shown its approval rating at the lowest level in the two decades since it was first established.

In the last national vote in 2016, United Russia won just over 54 percent of the vote.

Apathy is another major concern for the authorities, as Russian voters grow increasingly cynical about how free and fair elections are in the country. As of midafternoon September 19, turnout at polling stations nationwide stood around 43 percent, the Central Election Commission said.

In addition to being a test for United Russia, the three-day vote was also a major test for Navalny, the jailed corruption crusader whose allies had invested heavily in their Smart Voting strategy, aimed at eroding United Russia's stranglehold on politics.

This year, most of the candidates endorsed by Smart Voting are from the Communist Party -- even though it and two other parties in the Duma rarely vote against majority initiatives or those explicitly lobbied for by the Kremlin.

"If the United Russia party succeeds, our country will face another five years of poverty, five years of daily repression, and five wasted years," a message on Navalny's Instagram account read on the eve of the elections.

In recent months, authorities unleashed a sweeping crackdown against Navalny's political network, designating it an "extremist organization" and barring the politician's allies from participating in elections.

Navalny himself is in prison serving a 2 1/2 year sentence on charges his allies say were politically motivated.

As the vote kicked off on September 17, however, Navalny's Smart Voting app disappeared from the Apple and Google online stores. Telegram, a popular messaging app and a key tool for Navalny's team to get out its messaging, also removed a Smart Voting bot. YouTube -- which is owned by Google -- also took down a video that contained the names of candidates they had endorsed. And Google also blocked access to a Navalny Google Doc, which circulated a text copy of all the Smart Voting endorsed candidates.

About 50 websites run by Navalny have also been blocked, including the one dedicated to Smart Voting.

Long Lines

The vote, which is being held alongside elections for regional governors and local legislative assemblies, took place amid widespread reports of irregularities.

On the first day of the election, there were unusually long lines at some polling stations -- what Golos, an independent election-monitoring group, suggested were state workers and military personnel being forced by United Russia and government authorities to vote.

Voters interviewed in one Moscow district expressed skepticism toward both the election results and the opposition's chances of influencing them through Smart Voting.

"You can see what's happening with our elections. I don't trust them," said Tatiana Bochkova, a journalist who voted in Moscow's 208th district for Sergei Mitrokhin, a politician for the liberal Yabloko party whom she had backed in previous elections.

"I didn't use Smart Voting, because I don't believe it can really work," Bochkova told RFE/RL.

Sergei Ross, a lawyer who has previously defended opposition activists, said he had followed the recommendation of Smart Voting and chosen Mitrokhin.

He said he doesn't trust the elections but believes that vote-rigging will not be as widespread in Moscow as in other parts of the country.

"The opposition now has more tools at its disposal, like Smart Voting," he said. "But the state does too, and it's using them against the press and independent journalists."

Vadim, a 63-year-old theater historian at a Moscow academy, said he had voted for a newly created political party, New People, because of its promise to introduce fresh faces into politics.

He broadly trusts the elections because the low turnout makes it harder for authorities to falsify them, he said. He did not agree with critics who said New People was one of several parties launched in cooperation with the Kremlin to create the illusion of real competition.

"We all know officials steal and don't represent the interests of the people. But I think we must vote anyway, to express our position," Vadim said.

Across the country, there were reports of ballot box stuffing and "carousel voting"--where voters are bussed into multiple polling stations as an organized group. It's unclear, however, to what extent the fraud reports would affect the final vote.

In the central Volga region of Chuvashia, the local Communist Party accused a precinct boss of trying to eat part of an official election tally sheet, in a bid to cover a fraudulent tally.

In the North Caucasus, where voter fraud and irregularities are commonplace, four separate precincts in the Daghestan and Ingushetia regions reported 100 percent turnout -- in one case, just a few hours into the first day of voting.

Ballot-Stuffing Allegations

Navalny's team has called on voters to cast ballots on the last day to reduce the chance their votes are not discarded during the first two days of voting.

Authorities said they spread the election over three days to prevent crowding because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Critics, however, say the longer period offers ample opportunities for manipulation and engineering a desired outcome.

In St. Petersburg, an independent election-monitoring group reported that a candidate from the opposition Yabloko party was beaten by police officers at one polling station on September 19 after he claimed piles of unused ballots had disappeared.

A video shared by activists appeared to show at least three officers manhandling Nikita Sorokin, who is running for the local legislative assembly. Several other monitors are also seen being forcibly removed from the site.

Golos earlier reported some 2,000 procedural violations as well as violations of lax measures for guarding ballots at polling stations, people voting multiple times, as well as dozens of reported incidents of ballot stuffing.

Gennady Zyuganov, who heads the Communist Party, also alleged widespread violations and called on election officials to respond to reports of "a number of absolutely egregious facts," including ballot-box stuffing.

With reporting by RFE/RL correspondents in Moscow, Current Time, RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service, RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, AP, and Reuters

Source: https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-vote- final-day-elections/31467367.html

Copyright (c) 2021. 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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