Ruling party set to sweep Russian election after Navalny crackdown

Newsletter: Europe Express

Russia’s ruling pro-Kremlin party is set to renew its supermajority as parliamentary elections conclude on Sunday, following a campaign marked by a crackdown on supporters of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

The United Russia party, which backs President Vladimir Putin, was on track to win a majority in the 450-seat State Duma, the lower house of parliament, election officials said after 20 per cent of the vote was counted. Turnout was about 45 per cent, one of the lowest totals on record, according to Tass, a state-run Russian news agency.

Exit polls had shown United Russia winning 45 per cent of the vote, which the party said would be enough to retain its supermajority.

The Kremlin had sought to deliver a resounding victory for the party in the last vote before Putin’s current presidential term expires in 2024. But the highly stage-managed vote, which came as the opposition accused officials of widespread ballot-stuffing and fraud, could not disguise popular anger at falling living standards.

The Communist party, the largest of a set of normally docile official opposition parties, was set to win 21 per cent of the vote — nearly double its total at the last election in 2016, according to exit polls.

Although Putin, 68, is much more popular than United Russia, maintaining a supermajority for the party will be key for the Kremlin to pass its agenda — including constitutional reforms last year that potentially extend Putin’s rule until 2036 and several laws used to crush Navalny’s supporters in the lead-up to the vote.

Dozens of opposition candidates were struck from the ballot — several of them over their ties to Navalny. Several who did make it on have accused the Kremlin of running spoiler candidates with almost identical names — and, in at least one case, appearance — to split the protest vote.

The Kremlin had moved to crush a “smart voting” campaign by Navalny using an internet app to direct discontented voters towards one of the Kremlin-run opposition parties that was allowed on the ballot. Apple and Google removed Navalny’s app from their stores on Friday after Russia threatened to arrest their employees.

Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s chief of staff, claimed that voters in 12 of Moscow’s 15 electoral districts and all eight districts in St Petersburg had backed candidates recommended by the “smart voting” app.

In the months leading up to the vote, Russia banned Navalny’s foundation, prompting most of his most prominent allies to leave the country, and designated several independent media outlets and NGOs as “foreign agents”.

The Kremlin has justified the crackdown as necessary to thwart foreign interference in the election.

As part of its campaign strategy, the Kremlin had sought to drive its supporters to the polls while dampening turnout among the opposition through a mixture of blandishments and coercion.

Huge lines formed outside some polling stations as voting began on Friday, with some telling Russian media they were state employees who had been coerced at their workplaces to go to the polls.

“The hope is that people who are against the authorities stay at home, and those who depend on them or support United Russia go to the polls,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of political consultancy R. Politik. “They [the Kremlin] need to do as much as they can, using all sorts of techniques, to make those people vote.”

Election monitors posted security camera footage from polling stations on to social media showing apparent violations. They included a hand that emerged from behind a Russian flag in the Siberian city of Kemerovo to stuff votes into a ballot box, pre-filled ballots for United Russia in Moscow and alleged vote-buying in the Far East region.

Golos, an independent election monitor that was declared a “foreign agent last month,” said it had recorded 4,525 possible violations at polling stations. But officials said none of the falsifications could have affected the total.

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