Russia polls test Putin’s grip on power a week after poisoning of Navalny

A woman casts her ballot in Tomsk - REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
A woman casts her ballot in Tomsk – REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

Russians went to the polls on Sunday in regional elections that could prove a test for President Vladimir Putin and the ruling United Russia party. 

The president’s approval ratings have sunk to historic lows this year amid a struggling economy, while protests continue in Russia’s far east and neighbouring Belarus.

The votes for governors and local councils are also being held in the shadow of the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who remains in a German hospital after suddenly falling ill in Siberia last month.

Mr Navalny’s team are running a “smart voting” campaign, which encourages supporters to back whichever candidate in their area has the best chance of beating United Russia, whether they be from communist or nationalist parties.

Around a third of the Russian electorate is eligible to take part in polls in 41 of the country’s regions.

A man casts his vote in Tatarstan - Yegor Aleyev/TASS
A man casts his vote in Tatarstan – Yegor Aleyev/TASS

They are the first electoral challenge for the Kremlin after Mr Putin effectively won the right to rule for life under changes to the constitution that reset presidential terms, and are seen as a dry run for parliamentary elections next year.

“‘Smart voting’ is the best answer to Putin’s reset. By uniting protest votes, we can beat United Russia in elections and deprive it of its support base,” Mr Navalny’s campaign said.

Some of Mr Navalny’s supporters have suggested he was attacked precisely because of the threat this tactic poses to the Kremlin. 

Dozens of Navalny-backed candidates are hoping to win council seats in Russia’s third city Novosibirsk, where the opposition leader was campaigning shortly before his poisoning.

Mr Navalny released a report alleging that the Novosibirsk council was being run by a “construction cartel” that writes laws and allocates public funds in their own favour. 

Sergei Boiko, who is heading opposition efforts in the Siberian city, on Sunday called on supporters to “clean out the mafia” from Novosibirsk. 

Vladimir Putin - Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin
Vladimir Putin – Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin

Last week, three opposition activists in Novosibirsk were taken ill after assailants threw a jar containing an unknown liquid into their office.

Aside from Novosibirsk, authorities will be watching the results in Siberan Irkutsk, where the Communist Party has launched a serious challenge to the Kremlin-backed incumbent. 

In the far north of Russia, local anger over landfill plans is threatening upsets for other Kremlin-backed candidates.

Separately, mass protests in Khabarovsk, far-eastern Russia, are continuing into a second month after the Kremlin arrested and replaced a locally-elected opposition governor. 

The elections this year have been held over three days, ending on Sunday, rather than the usual one day of voting. Authorities said the measures were necessary because of the coronavirus pandemic but the opposition argue they increase the opportunity for fraud.