Sunday, August 7

Putin urges Russians to vote as general elections begin

Russian President Vladimir Putin urged Russians on Thursday to vote in the upcoming parliamentary elections after a lackluster campaign season.

With early voting already underway in the petrochemical sector, polls nationwide will open for three-day elections on Friday morning.

Putin’s United Russia party is expected to comfortably maintain its dominance over the State Duma, where it currently has a two-thirds majority.

After months of official measures to crack down on any significant opposition, there are official concerns that low turnout could damage the prestige of the ruling party.

In an eleventh hour video message on Thursday, Putin appealed to voters: “The election of the new parliament is undoubtedly the most important event in the life of our society and our country.

“We are all equally interested in choosing responsible, efficient and respected people … I count on your responsible, well-regarded, patriotic and civic position.”

The landscape of this weekend’s voting

The Kremlin wants to maintain control over the new parliament, as it will still be in place in 2024 when Putin’s current term expires.

The former Russian prime minister will have to decide whether to run for re-election or choose some other strategy to stay in power.

This year, 14 parties are running candidates for half of the 450 seats in the lower house of the Russian legislature. But all three parties, apart from United Russia, which is expected to garner 5 percent of the support necessary to win a seat, rarely challenge the Kremlin.

The other half of the seats are chosen in individual electoral districts, where independent candidates or those from small parties such as the liberal Yabloko party may have a greater chance.

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Polls indicate that United Russia’s overall approval is low. However, the independent Russia Center for Current Policy predicts it will win between 299 and 306 seats – less than the 343 it currently holds, but within the range of 303 seats needed to change the constitution.

The Center believes that most of the seats lost by United Russia will be taken up by the Communist Party. But this party also largely conforms to the Kremlin line.

In addition to the Duma election, nine Russian regions will elect governors, 39 regions will elect legislatures, and voters in 11 cities will elect municipalities.

“There is very little intrigue in these elections … In fact, they will not leave a special trace in political history,” Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told AP.

Ethical concerns can cast a long shadow over the outcome

The result could be more questioned this year than in previous elections. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has said it will not send observers this weekend, saying Russia imposed excessive restrictions.

In August, Moscow also added the independent vote monitoring group Golos to its list of foreign agents. This does not block its work, but it could allow any findings it issues to be more easily dismissed by the Kremlin.

Russia’s Elections Commission ordered the vote to be extended to three days, which ended on Sunday, to reduce overcrowding at the polls amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Critics have warned that this could increase the risk of ballot tampering. The head of the commission, Ella Pamfilova, rejected the claim, saying that there would be “full video surveillance” of the polling stations and that the ballots would be in secure containers.

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According to polls by the Russian state-funded VTsIOM pollster, more than one in 10 workers say their bosses have given them directions on how to vote.

Ukrainian politicians also raised the alarm on Thursday over the installation of polling stations in annexed Crimea, where Moscow has issued 600,000 passports to pro-Russian separatists ahead of the vote.

Eliminating opposition

The ongoing arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny sparked mass protests in Russia earlier this year.

The Navalny Anti-Corruption Foundation and the network of some 40 regional offices were banned as extremist groups in July, and many of its core team members were arrested.

In recent months, Russian authorities have also taken down some 50 websites run by Navalny’s team or their supporters.

But the group’s ‘Smart Voting’ initiative could still make headway in the Russian electorate. He advises voters which alternative candidate is the strongest in their area and could have a chance to topple United Russia.

In 2019, the platform boosted opposition candidates who won 20 out of 45 seats on the Moscow city council. In last year’s regional elections, United Russia lost its majority in Novosibirsk, Tambov and Tomsk.

It’s unclear how widely the Smart Voting program will be used this year after authorities blocked access to its website. The service is still available through apps, but Russia has threatened Apple and Google with fines if it is not removed from their online stores.

Last week, the Foreign Ministry summoned US Ambassador John Sullivan to protest against electoral interference by US “digital giants.”

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