Russia’s ruling party was set to lose local elections held in the city where opposition leader Alexei Navalny was suspected of being poisoned last month, but won crucial ballots elsewhere amid widespread allegations of electoral violations.
The Siberian cities of Novosibirsk and Tomsk, where Mr Navalny was campaigning before collapsing on the flight back to Moscow after being poisoned by the nerve agent novichok, voted for a majority of opposition candidates, according to preliminary results. That would end control of their councils by United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s party.
But results elsewhere suggested landslide victories for the president’s candidates in elections to choose governors in a number of regions, despite polls indicating closer races and fears inside the Kremlin that a handful may be forced into a second round run-off.
The elections were the first in Russia to use a new system allowing voting over a number of days, an initiative that transparency organisations had warned could make it more difficult to prevent electoral fraud.
Golos, an independent election watchdog, said the campaign had been conducted with “lawlessness”.
The dozens of local polls that closed on Sunday were seen as a critical stress test for the ruling party ahead of next year’s parliamentary election. Public anger over years of falling real incomes, higher taxes and an increase in the pension age had driven United Russia’s popularity to an all-time low.
The elections were held in the shadow of last month’s poisoning of Mr Navalny, whose organisation’s “smart voting” initiative encouraged voters across the country to back candidates with the best chance of unseating United Russia lawmakers.
That appeared to have worked in Novosibirsk, Russia’s third largest city, where preliminary results indicated that United Russia would win 22 seats in the 50-seat chamber, down from 33. Two associates of Mr Navalny were set to win seats.
In Tomsk, capital of a big oil and gas producing region, United Russia was set to win just 11 seats in the 37-strong chamber, down from 21 out of 35 at the previous election.
“This is the answer to all the whining that allegedly Alexei [Navalny] is not supported in the regions,” Mr Navalny’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh said on Twitter. “He is very supported.”
Russia’s interior ministry said it had received more than 2,500 complaints of electoral violations, but that none was serious enough to affect any of the results.
Golos said in a statement: “Signals are coming from different regions that may indicate impending falsifications, and sometimes directly indicate them, including ballot stuffing.
“Golos has not received such a massive flow of messages about demonstrative disregard of the law, including the rights of observers and members of commissions, over the past four years.”
The watchdog also detailed violence against observers and the removal of seals on ballot boxes before voting began.
But United Russia cheered results showing a clean sweep of the 18 gubernatorial races, with some Kremlin-backed candidates recording support well in excess of 80 per cent.
In Irkutsk, a region close to the border with Mongolia, the incumbent defied an exit poll suggesting a close race to win 61 per cent of the vote. Kremlin-backed candidates were also on track to comfortably retain the governorships of Arkhangelsk and Komi, despite suggestions by analysts that the races could be close.
“I can say with confidence that United Russia is winning a conclusive victory in this electoral cycle,” said Andrei Turchak, secretary of United Russia’s general council.