Russia’s Sunday election results came as no surprise to opponents of President Vladimir Putin — it was a foregone conclusion, they have been warning for months.
The Kremlin barred most genuinely independent candidates - first and foremost supporters of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny – from running for the 450-seat Duma.
The polls were held against the backdrop of a crackdown on dissent, leaving little doubt that Putin’s ruling United Russia Party would romp home to victory yet again and retain its parliamentary majority.
The party claimed victory a few hours after the polls closed Sunday after three days of voting amid claims of ballot stuffing, vote-rigging and the marshaling of public-sector workers to back United Russia candidates.
United Russia official, Andrei Turchak, said his party was on target to win more than 300 of the 450 seats in the Duma, telling reporters in Moscow that the party was likely to emerge with 315 seats in Russia’s lower house of parliament.
On Monday, Russia’s election commission reported preliminary results — after 90% of the vote had been counted — that United Russia had secured 49% of the votes for candidates drawn from party-lists and about 87% of the vote where a deputy is elected in each constituency. Half of the seats in the Duma are allocated by party list voting and the other half are appointed through majority voting in constituencies.
Polling data ahead of the election suggested that just 26% of Russians were ready to vote for United Russia.
Throughout the three days of voting across 11 time zones, poll observers and voters reported thousands of violations. Videos were posted on social-media sites showing purportedly ballot stuffing, independent monitors thrown out of polling stations and the few opposition candidates allowed to stand assaulted.
A video shot in the Saratov region depicted two female poll workers feeding dozens of ballots into a voting machine after polling had ended. Another from Kemerovo shows ballot-stuffing, as a poll worker tries to obscure what is happening by attempting to block the view.
The independent Golos monitoring organization listed by Sunday more than 4,500 cases of reported poll violations. It said it had received “numerous messages” from people who said they were being forced by their employers to vote.
Long lines formed at some polling stations Friday, according to local reports. Navalny supporters suggested that meant state workers were being mobilized to vote by the Kremlin and local authorities.
“Every time [under Putin], elections have looked a little less like elections. Now this process is complete,” exiled Putin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky told the Echo of Moscow radio station last week. “The next time our people will vote for real will be after they earn that right on the barricades,” he added.
Claiming outside interference
The head of Russia's electoral commission rejected claims of widespread irregularities, saying the criticism was part of “a planned, deliberate campaign, well-funded from abroad.” Ella Pamfilova also accused anti-Kremlin activists of “fabricating fake reports” about voting violations. Russia's interior ministry spokesperson told reporters that no “significant violations” had been registered.
The electoral commission said it had only found 12 cases of ballot stuffing across the entire country. United Russia’s Turchak said the party had not detected significant violations that could sway election results.
This year’s Duma election was the first time since 1993 that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, decided not to send an observation team, a decision taken in response to strict limitations imposed by Russian authorities.
The claims of Russia’s electoral commission that the elections were free and fair were rejected Monday by Western politicians, including the former foreign minister of Lithuania, Linas Linkevičius, who said on Twitter the election was a “mockery & farce.” He added: “Worst is that manipulation of democratic instruments has become norm in that country,” he said, adding that the “results of ‘elections’ should not be recognized.”
Despite what Kremlin critics and opposition figures say was a manipulated election, not all went according to plan, they add. Even alleged vote-rigging could not disguise a low 46% turnout, lower than in Russia’s last parliamentary elections five years ago. And there were signs Monday of voting problems for United Russia in Moscow and St. Petersburg, where officials repeatedly delayed announcements of preliminary results.
Vladimir Milov, an opposition politician, who served as Russia’s deputy minister of energy in 2002, tweeted Monday of his suspicions that poll officials were “trying to rewrite the protocols” and to dismiss as fraudulent two million votes cast electronically in Moscow.
Opposition figures remain fuming at the decision last week by Google and Apple to bow to Kremlin pressure and to remove from their stores a Smart Voting app devised by jailed Russian opposition leader Navalny. The youth-oriented Smart Voting app offered a guide on how to vote tactically for the best-placed candidate not affiliated with United Russia, which meant in many places voting for candidates offered by the Communist Party.
Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s former campaign manager, accused the U.S. tech giants of having “caved in to the Kremlin’s blackmail.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov rejected last week the allegation of political censorship, telling reporters in Moscow the app was removed in observation of the “letter and spirit” of Russian law. Russian authorities had threatened the two companies with financial penalties unless they deleted the app.