(CNSNews.com) – As voters in Moscow and other Russian regions prepare to go to the polls after a local election campaign characterized by large street protests, the country’s most prominent opposition figure is urging them to vote strategically, in a bid to defeat the pro-Kremlin ruling United Russia party.
The party historically associated with President Vladimir Putin enjoys a 60 percent majority in the Moscow City Duma. But in the run-up to Sunday’s election, United Russia has not put forward a single candidate under its name or logo; its members are instead running as “independents,” in a move critics see as an acknowledgement of the party’s sliding popularity.
(Putin himself ran as the United Russia flagbearer in the 2012 presidential election, but later stood down from leadership of the fraud-tainted party, and when he stood for another term last year he did so as an “independent.”)
The campaign for the Moscow City Duma (MCD) election saw streets protests in the capital – the biggest in seven years – after election authorities disqualified dozens of anti-Kremlin opposition candidates from running for the 45-member assembly.
Some of the barred individuals were seen as strong contenders to beat United Russia rivals. The official reason given for their disqualification was irregularities in the collection of constituents’ signatures, required in order to be eligible to run.
In reaction to the protest rallies – which drew as many as 50,000 people on one rainy Saturday last month – and U.S. criticism of Russian policy, the government and United Russia lawmakers accused the U.S. Embassy and foreign interests of interfering in the country’s internal affairs.
During the protests, anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, a leading Putin critic, was one of a number of activists arrested for alleged “mass unrest” offenses. Navalny was jailed for 30 days, although several others have been sentenced for longer terms, with one of them, Konstantin Kotov, handed down a sentence on Thursday of four years’ imprisonment.
Navalny is urging supporters to set aside their ideological differences with other opposition candidates – even communists or ultra-nationalists – and focus on ousting United Russia candidates, not just in the MCD, but in other ballots across the country, where governor and state parliament positions are also being filled.
His group’s “Smart Voting” initiative has identified candidates in many of the elections that have the best chances of beating United Russia candidates – including the nominal independents. Irrespective of their political affiliation, he says, they are the ones to support, to break the United Russia “monopoly.”
The call has been controversial in some pro-democracy quarters, with people questioning the ethics of voting for a representative of the Communist Party or ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR).
United Russia has dominated political life for almost two decades, enjoying majorities in the State Duma in all four parliamentary elections since 2003. In the 2016 election it won 54 percent of the vote, with the Communists in distant second place with 13 percent.
United Russia currently holds 338 of the 450 seats in the State Duma, well ahead of the Communists (43 seats) and LDPR (39 seats). Almost 90 percent of the governors of Russia’s federal entities are United Russia members, and party members dominate regional parliaments too.
But its popularity has taken a hit as a result of fraud and corruption allegations, and especially following a controversial government pension reform announced last year, which included the raising of the retirement age from 60 to 65 for men, and from 55 to 63, later adjusted to 60, for women (in a country where life expectancy is 65.6 for men and 77.3 for women.)
A poll by Russia’s VTSIOM opinion research center in June found support across the country for United Russia party stood at just 33.9 percent, while another VTSIOM poll two months earlier found that in Moscow, just 22 percent of respondents said they would support a United Russia candidate running for the MCD. (Notably, 37 percent of respondents said they would support an independent.)
The next State Duma elections are two years away.