- Parliamentary elections may bolster ruling United Russia party
- Local monitors complain of restricted access to observe vote
Russians went to the polls for the first parliamentary elections since a disputed vote in 2011 sparked the biggest protests of President Vladimir Putin’s more than decade-and-a-half rule.
The pro-Putin United Russia party is expected to emerge from Sunday’s ballot with an increased majority, as election officials seek to avoid the unrest that was triggered by widespread allegations of vote-rigging five years ago. The format has changed, with the restoration of single-member constituencies for half of the Duma’s 450 seats seen as favoring the ruling party, while new restrictions limit access for local observers to monitor the vote.
Turnout exceeded 23 percent as of 12 p.m. in Moscow, Interfax reported, citing the Central Election Commission.
Putin, who cast his vote in Moscow on Sunday, pledged before election day that the authorities had provided “equal conditions for an open and fair competition by all participants.”
The Russian leader, 63, is widely expected to seek re-election in March 2018. Anger over ballot-stuffing in 2011 sparked huge protests that continued through his return to the Kremlin in 2012. The authorities reacted with new laws to suppress the opposition movement, including jailing activists. Putin’s popularity also hit record highs on a surge of patriotism after he annexed Crimea in 2014, even as international sanctions helped push the economy into recession. Still, the Kremlin’s concerned to prevent fraud allegations marring this contest and spurring a new wave of opposition to him.
In downtown Moscow, Larisa Kiseleva, a 65-year-old pensioner, said she’d cast her vote for the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of firebrand Vladimir Zhirinovsky -- one of three loyalist parties in Parliament alongside United Russia. While she said she supported Putin as president, Kiseleva criticized the below-inflation pension increase this year.
Exit poll findings are due to be released at 9 p.m. Moscow time, with most official results expected by Monday morning. The latest opinion surveys showed United Russia’s support falling to 40 percent from 60 percent 18 months ago as Russians endure the longest recession in two decades provoked by the collapse in oil prices. It won around 50 percent of the vote in 2011, gaining 238 seats in the parliament.
Putin picked a long-time human-rights advocate, Ella Pamfilova, earlier this year to oversee the elections, while Russia has also invited about 500 observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. But he also toughened restrictions on the work of Russian vote monitors and set up a paramilitary force of 340,000 troops in a new National Guard whose tasks include suppressing mass demonstrations.
Golos, an independent Russian vote-monitoring group, had to cut its presence in half compared with 2011 to 3,000-4,000 observers because of the new limits, said its co-chairman, Grigory Melkonyants. Monitors are now required to register 72 hours in advance at specific polling stations.
Voting across the 11 time zones of the world’s largest nation started at 8 a.m. local time (11 p.m. Saturday Moscow time) in the far eastern Chukhotka Peninsula opposite Alaska. It will end at 8 p.m. in Kaliningrad, Russia’s westernmost territory, one hour behind Moscow. About 111 million people were registered to vote at 94,000 polling stations.
While vote-counting will be relatively clean in cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, where the largest protests took place after the 2011 elections, “anything could happen” in areas where there are no observers, Melkonyants said.
Surveys by the independent Levada Center show a third of Russians are dissatisfied at the direction the country is taking, amid declining real wages and budget cuts in a second year of a recession that’s pushed millions into poverty. The same polls show that only about a tenth of respondents are willing to protest for their rights.
Even so, the authorities are taking no chances and ensured the governing party got most election coverage on state television and dominated access to voters in campaigning, Melkonyants said.
A preliminary report by the OSCE’s observer mission noted the “low key” campaign and complaints about “misuse of administrative resources.” It also welcomed the new leadership of the Central Electoral Commission, simplified registration for parties and the fact that independent candidates have been allowed to stand for election.
Still, with at most a handful of opposition lawmakers likely to get elected, Putin can count on maintaining the status quo in parliament, where United Russia, the Communists, the Liberal Democratic Party and Fair Russia hold all the seats.
“The Kremlin is feeling quite calm,” said Nikolai Petrov, a professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics. “It’ll be satisfied if these four parties maintain their grip on the Duma.”