Andrei Ishchenko, Communist Party candidate in gubenatorial elections in Russia's far-eastern Primorsky Krai region, center, attends attends a rally with supporters, in Vladivostok, Sept. 17, 2018.
Andrei Ishchenko, Communist Party candidate in gubenatorial elections in Russia's far-eastern Primorsky Krai region, center, attends attends a rally with supporters, in Vladivostok, Sept. 17, 2018.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is normally sure-footed when it comes to domestic politics, is facing an increasing challenge to his rule in Russia’s Far East, where his party suffered rare electoral setbacks Sunday amid rising anger over government plans to raise the national retirement age.

Election victories by the vehemently nationalist and anti-Western Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) of Russia have sent shockwaves through the Kremlin, which hadn’t expected to get trounced in the voting in second-round run-offs for governors in the region of Khabarovsk as well as in Vladimir region, east of Moscow.

In Khabarovsk, the LDPR candidate won 70 percent of the vote with the incumbent from Putin’s ruling United Russia party attracting just 28 percent.  In the Vladimir region, the LDPR pushed out another United Russia incumbent, winning 20 percent more of the vote than Putin’s party.

Gary Kasparov, the former chess grandmaster and anti-Putin activist, says the collective election rout should be seen as a personal setback for the Russian president.  He tweeted, “Even when every true opposition figure is banned from Russian ballots, Putin's party has now lost two elections in a row to ‘anyone but Putin’ turnout.”

The elections Sunday followed weeks of protests across the country against plans to raise the retirement age for men from 60 to 65 and for women from 55 to 60 years.  On September 9, Russia’s ruling party suffered election defeats at the hands of the Communist Party in parliamentary polls in Siberia and central Russia as well as in another eastern region.

FILE - People gather for a rally at the Primorsky
FILE - People gather for a rally at the Primorsky Krai regional administration's building following gubernatorial elections in the region in Russia's Far East, Sept. 17, 2018. Elections there were declared aborted after Communist Party candidate Andrei Ishchenko took the lead.

Crumbling aura

The election drama, with mounting reverses for United Russia in three weeks of voting, is seen by some analysts as marking a crumbling of Putin’s aura of invincibility.  With mounting popular anger at the retirement-age changes, Putin's approval ratings have been tumbling.

According to the Levada Center, a pollster, the Russian president’s public opinion ratings are at a four-year low.

The Bell, a Russian news site founded by Liza Osetinskaya, a former editor of Forbes Russia, says the elections are a “serious test for the Kremlin’s domestic political system in the context of falling approval ratings sparked by unpopular pension reform.”

Sunday’s defeats are all the more surprising, say analysts, because the LDPR hardly campaigned, while the Kremlin sent its top spin doctors to Vladimir and Khabarovsk and dispatched top celebrities to try to ensure United Russia candidates won the elections.  There were promises by the Kremlin of more federal investment.

The LDPR is the party of 72-year-old Vladimir Zhirinovsky, considered by many an eccentric figure, who has urged Putin at various times to bomb Turkey and the Baltic countries, and in his own presidential election campaigns has called for vodka to be free.  He has campaigned for the legalization of polygamy.

People attend a rally against planned increases to
FILE - People attend a rally against planned retirement age hikes, in Krasnodar, Russia, Sept. 9, 2018. The poster at left reads: "Pension age hike amounts to lifetime slavery."

Pension reform at center

Some analysts put the defeats down to the Kremlin’s backing of incumbent regional governors.  In regions where United Russia fielded new candidates, the ruling party won.

In Far East regions, many time zones from Moscow, protest votes have flared before.  And in the Vladimir region, anger at the scale of poverty has been a factor in previous elections.  But United Russia’s support for the unpopular pension reform appears to have been a key factor in the upsets, say analysts.

Bloomberg columnist Leonid Bershidsky argues a “gap” is emerging between the Kremlin’s usual managed politics and “the way people lead their daily lives” and that unfair election practices aren’t enough to overcome popular frustration.

Last week, in a gubernatorial election in Primorsky Krai, in Russia’s Far East, a Communist challenger appeared to win, but the election was declared invalid after there was uproar when his United Russia opponent was announced as the victor.  There were accusations of wide-scale election fraud, forcing the hand of the country’s elections chief Ella Pamfilova to abort the poll.

Some analysts fear the Kremlin may react by cracking down even more on dissent.  On Monday, Russia's most prominent opposition leader, the anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny, was released from jail and then immediately arrested again and sentenced to another 20 days of detention for protest violations.