Russians are voting in regional elections overshadowed by the poisoning of main opposition figure Alexey Navalny, an economic crisis exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and mass protests in parts of the country.
Elections take place in 41 regions of Russia where people vote for governors and regional assemblies, as well as in four by-elections for national deputies.
In a report from Moscow, Al Jazeera’s Aleksandra Stojanovich-Godfroid said on Sunday that the polls were seen as a “major test” for the ruling United Russia party and President Vladimir Putin, both of whom saw their ratings drop a year before parliamentary elections.
United Russia, which currently dominates the federal parliament and many regional administrations, is the party most closely associated with Putin. The long-time president, however, is currently not a member of any political party and is therefore able to distance himself from unpopular measures initiated by senior, junior officials.
Last month, a national survey by Russia’s largest independent pollster, Levada Center, showed that 29% of Russians would participate in anti-government protests if they were held in their area.
Tatyana Stanovaya, head of analyst firm R.Politik, said the poll results will help the Kremlin determine whether United Russia should be reformed and whether parliamentary elections should be brought forward.
The poisoning of Navalny could also sway voters and lead to “conflicting effects,” Stanovaya told AFP news agency.
The 44-year-old, an anti-corruption crusader who is one of Putin’s fiercest critics, fell ill on a flight back to Moscow from Siberia on August 20 and was taken to a hospital from the Siberian city of Omsk after the plane made an emergency landing.
After his evacuation to Berlin, German medics said Navalny was poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent.
His associates believe that the use of the banned chemical weapon shows that only the Russian state could be responsible. The Kremlin rejected any suggestion that Russia was to blame.
Led by Navalny, the opposition hopes to challenge the Kremlin’s dominance of Russian politics by promoting the tactical vote, urging the Russians to support the strongest candidate to defeat the ruling party.
Navalny’s team urged Russians to vote for candidates from any party other than United Russia – Navalny was in Siberia promoting the so-called “smart vote” when he got sick.
Any other candidate – “a Communist, a member of the Liberal Democratic Party, a member of the Just Russia Party” – would be “better than United Russia,” Navalny’s team said in a statement on Friday, referring to the four main political parties. Russian.
“The elections can be won,” he added, pointing to the far eastern city of Khabarovsk, where tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets in the past two months after the arrest of an governor who defeated an incumbent of the ruling party in 2018..
With Navalny still recovering and absent from the Russian political scene, the “smart voting” campaign he launched could be undermined, Stanovaya said.
“On the flip side, what happened to Navalny caused a shock,” Stanovaya said, noting that some of those who had not supported him in the past may now change their mind.
In what some observers believe is yet another ploy by the Kremlin to water down the opposition vote, the candidates are also running for four new, little-known parties.
‘Unite the opposition’
As United Russia faces a deep popularity slump, elections in the country are taking place for the first time over three days and some polling stations will be open-air.
Advance voting began on Friday and the main polling day is Sunday.
The controversial three-day voting system was first tested in a July 1 nationwide vote on constitutional amendments that could allow Putin to stay in power until 2036.
One of the most high-profile campaigns took place in Novosibirsk, where Navalny’s bureau chief in Russia’s third largest city, Sergei Boiko, rallied opposition to counter United Russia and the Communist Party.
Its “Novosibirsk 2020” coalition fielded around 30 candidates for the city’s legislature and campaigned with the help of volunteers from the Navalny Anti-Corruption Fund.
“This is an attempt to unite the opposition, all those who say ‘no’ to the current regime,” Boiko told AFP.
The case of the former governor of Khabarovsk and the protest movement in Russia’s neighboring country Belarus have both sparked small-scale demonstrations of solidarity in Russian cities, suggesting that there is growing potential for a protest vote.