Russia’s top election official recommended the result of a gubernatorial election in the country’s far eastern Primorsky region to be annulled, alleging it was rigged.
Ella Pamfilova, head of the Central Election Commission, said on Wednesday a raft of irregularities had been identified, including ballot-stuffing and vote-buying.
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A final decision will be made on Thursday by the regional election commission and a new vote could be held within three months if it follows Pamfilova’s recommendations.
The runoff election took place on Sunday between Kremlin-backed United Russia candidate Andrei Tarasenko and his Communist challenger Andrei Ishchenko.
On Sunday night, Tarasenko was trailing Ishchenko by more than two percentage points with just under 99 percent of votes counted.
However, on Monday the local election commission said Tarasenko had won by just over one percentage point, with results showing he received almost every one of the final 20,000 votes counted.
“It’s clear that we have to carry out a full investigation and those guilty must be punished,” Pamfilova told Rossiya-1’s 60 Minutes show on Wednesday, noting that 24,500 votes from 13 polling stations were missing in Vladivostok’s Sovetsky district.
One day before the election, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Tarasenko and, according to a Kremlin transcript, told him “everything will be okay”.
Following the result, supporters of the Communist Party protested en masse in Vladivostok and Ishchenko said he would go on a hunger strike until the result was annulled.
Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for the Kremlin, said the government supported Pamfilova’s call for a rerun, adding the “priority of clean and fair elections” was more important to Putin than his preference for a candidate.
The Tarasenko election and three other reversals to select regional governors this month are the worst showing for Kremlin-backed candidates since 2012.
Communists this month also beat United Russia candidates in elections for the regional parliaments of Khakasia, Irkutsk and Ulyanovsk.
Although Putin’s United Russia party is still in control of the vast majority of the country, the problems show growing discontent over living standards and plans to delay the official retirement age.
Putin’s approval rating has fallen about 10 percentage points since the proposed reforms were announced in June, according to the Levada Center, an independent Moscow-based polling organisation, although it still stands at 70 percent.
Pension reforms by Putin led to a series of demonstrations against the government’s proposal to gradually raise the retirement age from 60 to 65 for men and from 55 to 63 for women – changes that would also affect the age at which Russians can receive state pensions.
Following the public outcry, Putin took personal responsibility for the first time in a televised address on Wednesday, describing it as a financial necessity and asking Russians for their understanding.
Almost three million people have signed an online petition against the proposed changes, which have been described by Moskovski Komsomolets, a Moscow newspaper, as “the most dangerous and risky reform” of Putin’s rule.
In March, Putin won a landslide re-election victory extending his rule for another six years. The 65-year-old has been in power – either as president or prime minister – since 2000.