Pro-Kremlin party retains large majority in parliament

Daria Litvinova
Associated Press

Moscow — Russia’s ruling party retained its supermajority in parliament, further cementing President Vladimir Putin’s grip on power in elections that most opposition politicians were barred from and that were marred by multiple reports of violations.

The vote has been watched closely for any signs that Putin's control might slip, however slightly, ahead of the 2024 presidential election. It's not yet clear whether Putin will run again, choose a successor or outline a different path — but he is expected to keep his hand on the tiller whatever he decides, and an obedient State Duma, or parliament, will crucial to those plans.

A member of an election commission pulls ballots out of a box preparing to count them at a polling station after the parliamentary elections in Nikolayevka in Bakhchysarai, Crimea, Sunday.

Results from nearly 99% of the country’s polling stations gave the ruling United Russia party 49.8% of the vote for the 225 seats apportioned by parties, according to the Central Election Commission. Another 225 lawmakers are chosen directly by voters, and the results Monday morning showed United Russia candidates leading in 198 of those races.

Chair of the Central Election Commission Ella Pamfilova confirmed at a briefing that United Russia has retained the so-called constitutional majority in the parliament, or two-thirds of the 450 seats required for a party to be allowed to make changes to the country's constitution.

In fact, the results indicated there would be almost no opposition voices in the Duma at all, with three other parties that usually toe the Kremlin line set to take many of the remaining seats, along with the New People party, which was formed last year and is regarded by many as a Kremlin-sponsored project.

According to Pamfilova, candidates from three other parties each won a seat, so in all eight political parties will be represented in the Duma. Voter turnout stood at 51.68%, Pamfilova said.

The Communist Party received 19% of the party-list vote, a sizable improvement from the 13% it got in the last election in 2016. United Russia got about 54% five years ago, so the results indicate some falloff in support.

But concerns that the results had been manipulated mounted Monday, with many decrying that a breakdown of the online voting in Moscow was still not available to the public. The results in the other six regions that were allowed to vote online have been detailed. In Moscow, approval of the ruling party has always been particularly low and protest voting has been widespread, and candidates from the Communist Party were calling for protests of the vote later in the day.

Any fraud allegations aside, the Kremlin sweep was widely expected since few opposition candidates were even allowed to run this year after Russian authorities unleashed a sweeping crackdown on Kremlin critics.

Organizations linked to imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny have been declared extremist, and anyone associated with them was barred from seeking public office by a new law. Navalny is serving 2½-year prison sentence for violating parole over a previous conviction he says is politically motivated.

Other prominent opposition politicians faced prosecution or were forced to leave the country under pressure from the authorities.

Navalny's team still hoped to make dents in United Russia's dominance with their Smart Voting strategy, which promoted candidates who had the best chance at defeating those backed by the Kremlin. However, a massive effort by authorities to suppress the strategy has been underway in recent weeks.

The government blocked the Smart Voting website and pressured Apple and Google to remove an app featuring it from their Russian online stores — a move the tech giants took as voting began Friday. Google also denied access to two documents on its online service Google Docs that listed candidates endorsed by Smart Voting, and YouTube blocked similar videos. In addition, the founder of the Russian messaging app Telegram, Pavel Durov, on Saturday disabled a Smart Voting chatbot set up by allies of Navalny.

Durov said he wanted to respect the laws prohibiting campaigning on voting days, but critics quickly pointed out that the didn't disable similar chatbots imitating Smart Voting and didn't remove the Moscow mayor's call to vote for United Russia candidates.

Apple and Google did not respond to a request for comment. However, a person with direct knowledge of the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that Google was forced to remove the app because it faced legal demands by regulators and threats of criminal prosecution in Russia.

The voting was also marred by numerous reports of violations, including ballot-stuffing. Some videos circulating on social media showed people trying to stuff thick piles of ballots into boxes, with only flimsy attempts at blocking the view of surveillance cameras by raising mops or pieces of cardboard. Brawls with election monitors were also caught on camera.

Some Kremlin critics said that there were as many violations as in 2011, when reports of mass fraud in the parliamentary election triggered months of anti-government and anti-Putin protests. Pamfilova maintained, however, that there were fewer violations this year than before. She said that in total, 25,830 ballots in 35 regions have been invalidated.

Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday that the Kremlin views the election “quite positively” in terms of its “competitiveness, transparency and fairness.”

The election this year was extended to three days, and in seven of Russia's 80-plus regions voters were offered the option of casting their ballots online. Officials said the measures were taken to reduce crowding at the polls during the coronavirus pandemic, but election monitors said that they created more room for manipulating the results.

There were particular concerns about voting in Moscow, where nearly 2 million votes were cast online, and the results of some races changed dramatically at the last minute on Monday.

“Results of unverifiable fraudulent online voting in Moscow must be invalidated completely,” Navalny’s top strategist Leonid Volkov wrote on Facebook.

Others questioned why the results of Moscow's online voting hadn't been broken out as they had been for other areas.

“Where are the results of online voting (in Moscow)?” Navalny's close ally Lyubov Sobol wrote on Facebook. “They're not releasing them in order to rig more votes for United Russia candidates?”

Valery Rashkin, a senior member of the Communist Party who ran for reelection in this year’s race, urged supporters to gather at the Pushkinskaya square in the center of Moscow on Monday evening to “discuss” election results and protest the reported violations. “Come out with us to fight for our rights!” wrote Rashkin, who was backed by the Smart Voting strategy and was initially leading the race but lost to a United Russia opponent.

Russian news site on Monday morning released a video showing that the square has already been fenced off and surrounded by police vans.

Independent political analyst Masha Lipman says anecdotal evidence of violations suggests the vote may have been even more problematic than in 2011, but believes that a wave of protests as large as 10 years ago is unlikely.

“There is a huge difference in the public mood between back in 2011 when people took to the streets (and now)," Lipman said.

“Between back 2011-2012 and now, the government has hardened its policy quite dramatically," she said. "The last time we had mass street protests earlier this year, they were very brutally suppressed, and it seems that this policy of brutal suppression and intimidation has worked."