MOSCOW — Voters in Moscow will go to the polls Sunday to elect a new city council, choosing from among more than 200 hopefuls in 45 districts — but with most of the main opposition candidates excluded from the ballot.
The protests that have shaken Moscow this summer were sparked by the refusal of the Central Election Commission to accept, according to one count, 204 candidates because of alleged deficiencies in their registration papers.
Activists and others claim the paperwork glitches were merely a way to keep opponents of President Vladimir Putin off the ballot.
All of the leading candidates associated with opposition leader Alexei Navalny have been blocked from the ballot, as have other outsiders. It doesn’t leave the outcome of the election in much doubt — even though there is one very conspicuous absence. Putin’s United Russia party is also not taking part.
Officially, anyway, United Russia hasn’t nominated any candidates.
But it will have plenty of support in the new city council. In all but one district, United Russia members are running as “independents” because their party brand has become so unpopular.
The party’s support has eroded faster than Putin’s, but his has been declining as well. Analysts chalk that up to a struggling economy, weariness over corruption and what seems to many Russians as political stagnation — including a decay of patriotic feeling following the spike of enthusiasm after Russia’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
And that’s not just in Moscow. Elections are being held in 18 regions and 26 cities, and United Russia’s participation can be hard to find.
In Khabarovsk, near the Pacific Coast, candidates from the ruling party are running on the Time For Change ballot line. (Critics point out that name doesn’t capture the spirit of the party’s actual approach to politics.) In Irkutsk, by the shores of Lake Baikal, the pro-Putin faction is called Our Irkutsk.
The acting governor of St. Petersburg, Alexander Beglov, who has worked in city government since Putin was there in the 1990s, is also running as an independent. He took office last year, when his predecessor left for another post, and was widely mocked after a big snowfall last winter for having himself televised while handing out shovels to United Russia officials. Critics suggested it would be better for the city to invest in more mechanized snow removal equipment.
Registering as candidates for the city council in St. Petersburg also presented difficulties.
Hopefuls complained that it was hard to find out what hours the commission was accepting registration papers. At times, large groups of phony candidates reportedly formed long, slow lines at election offices, denying real candidates a chance to get in before closing.
The absence of the ruling party, said Konstantin Gaaze, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank, “is a strong signal from the Kremlin that United Russia is effectively dead. All its candidates are undercover.” But, he noted, anyone who wants to can go online, where opposition websites have outed them as members of Putin’s political apparatus.
“When people express their viewpoint, including during protests, I believe they have a right to do that. And sometimes it produces a positive result because it shakes the authorities, sets them in the right direction to effectively resolve problems,” Putin said Thursday at an economic forum in Vladivostok, according to the Interfax news agency. “But the established rules and laws need to be observed.”
In Novosibirsk, Russia’s third-largest city, an activist associated with Navalny, Sergei Boiko, is still on the ballot as a candidate for mayor. United Russia, again, is absent from the race, but analyst Alexei Mazur said the city’s political and business establishment has rallied around the incumbent, Anatoly Lokot, who is from the Communist party of the Russian Federation.
“Businessmen don’t see Boiko as representative of their interests,” Mazur said. “They don’t want to spoil their relations with the authorities. It could be bad for business.”
So Boiko has received virtually no financial support and no access at all to the local media. In official polls, he’s nevertheless running in second place in a four-way race — but far behind.
In Moscow, Gaaze said, the street protests themselves have constituted a moral victory of sorts.
After a brutal crackdown July 27, the Kremlin has clearly backed off, he said. That’s because people in the rest of the country took a dim view of troops from the Interior Ministry and a new uniformed force called Rosgvardia fanning out in large numbers on the streets of the capital.
“This is a huge win,” he said. “Neither the Kremlin nor the opposition” had expected this public reaction.
Courts sentenced four protesters to prison on Tuesday and Wednesday for their actions during the July 27 demonstration but dropped charges against five others and released two to house arrest.
It was a sign, Gaaze said, that the harsh approach has been dropped. It also seriously dents the chances of Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, who endorsed the crackdown, of becoming Putin’s successor, he said.
With his own candidates knocked off the ballot, Navalny has called on Muscovites to practice what he calls “smart voting”: selecting whichever candidate in each district has the best chance of beating the (United Russia) nominee. Not all his backers like this idea, especially if it means voting for a Communist. Some will probably deface their ballots instead — or just stay home.
An earlier version of this article misidentified the party of Anatoly Lokot. He is a member of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation.