Russian opposition weak at polls


A woman prepares to vote in the local elections in town of Khimki outside Moscow on October 14, 2012. Russians went to the polls today to elect regional governors and mayors in key cities in the first such vote since President Vladimir Putin's return to the Kremlin. (KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
October 14, 2012

The political opposition that emerged on Russian streets nearly a year ago apparently has been unable to turn discontent with President Vladimir Putin into victory at the ballot box, according to early results from Sunday’s regional and local elections.

Russians, voting for five governors, along with a number of mayors, regional parliaments and city councils, were largely sticking with Putin’s United Russia party, which has been working hard to solidify its grip on power since a dismal showing in December elections for the national parliament.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev virtually declared victory for the party Sunday night, based on results from Russia’s Far East, which is eight time zones away from Moscow. “I’ll say it straight,” he said. “United Russia did well, better than in the December state Duma elections.”

Medvedev went on to caution party officials against letting the results make them overly confident. “Work hard,” he said, “and do all that we have promised.”

In the December elections for the lower house of parliament, United Russia took 49 percent of the vote, a big setback after the 64 percent it won in 2007. But its roots sink deep into Russian soil, and party members remained in control of most offices, from the Kremlin to governors, mayors and local legislatures. They exert enormous influence through the media and by controlling budgets, dispensing government funds to the favored and withholding them from those who are not. Outside of Moscow, Putin remains a popular figure.

Nearly 5,000 candidates were running nationwide, with elections in most of Russia’s 83 regions, with the exception of Moscow and a few others. A mayoral race in the Moscow suburb of Khimki illustrated the difficulty the opposition encountered. Yevgenia Chirikova, a 35-year-old environmental activist who has been one of the most appealing members of the opposition, said United Russia used its might against her at every turn.

She said that public employees were told by their bosses to vote for the sitting mayor and that her complaints of election violations had not been dealt with in court before the election. An exit poll showed incumbent Mayor Oleg Shakhov with 43 percent of the vote, while Chirikova had about 20 percent. Later in the evening, with 30 percent of the vote counted, election officials said Shakhov had 47 percent of the vote.

Public anger over election rigging set off protests in December, bringing tens of thousands of people out on the streets, first against election manipulation, then against Putin, who won the presidential election in March. Recently, the protests have been more sporadic.

Final results in Sunday’s regional and local elections are expected Monday, along with reports from poll monitors.

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