Moscow, Russia – After a summer of protests calling for fair elections, the Russian capital this weekend witnessed an unprecedented political event: a setback for the power in place.
Candidates endorsed by United Russia, President Vladimir Putin‘s party, lost in almost half of Moscow districts in Sunday’s polls to elect representatives to the Duma, Moscow’s parliament.
In 2014, the party had secured 38 out of the 45 seats in the city Duma. This time, it won only in 25 districts, effectively surrendering 13 seats.
All non-systemic opposition candidates were effectively barred from running, and the major beneficiary turned out to be the Communist party, which placed 13 people in the municipal assembly.
Liberal parties Yabloko or The Russian United Democratic Party and Fair Russia secured four and three representatives respectively.
United Russia has been perceived as a spent political force for some time now – especially after a deeply unpopular reform last year to raise the retirement age. The party was polling so poorly that most candidates endorsed by the power were running as “independents” – all of them in the capital.
Looking at those statistics, it's hard to say that it's a huge victory for nthe opposition. It even seems like most opposition-minded voters actually stayed home.
Of note, Andrey Metelsky, head of United Russia in Moscow and a council member since 2001, on Sunday lost to communist Sergey Sevostyanov. Another high-profile figure, Aleksei Shaposhnikov, acting head of the city council, is also commiserating.
Meanwhile, in the eastern region of Khabarovsk, 34 of the 35 Duma seats went to the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) in a local gubernatorial election.
Playing on growing dissatisfaction with Russian power, prominent opposition leader Alexei Navalny had called for a “smart voting” tactic.
The idea was to push out ruling party candidates by systematically voting for the next person with the best chance of beating them – a strategy that appears to have worked.
“We fought together and we won,” wrote Navalny on his YouTube channel on Monday evening, adding on Twitter that it was a “fantastic victory” for his new tool, dreamt up while he was in prison last year.
But critics, including winning candidates, disagree with the effectiveness of the tool.
“These weren’t real elections, lots of candidates who would clearly have won weren’t allowed to run,” successful candidate Darya Besedina, a 31-year-old architect endorsed by the liberal Yabloko party, wrote on Twitter.
Tatiana Stanovaya, a political expert and the founder of the R Politik political consultancy firm, said the “real impact” of the vote is impossible to measure, citing the low turnout in Moscow – only 21 percent.
Analysts said that low participation shows how even in the capital, most Russians prefer to steer clear of politics.
“Looking at those statistics, it’s hard to say that it’s a huge victory for the opposition. It even seems like most opposition-minded voters actually stayed home,” said Stanovaya.
Turnout was higher in the regions, slightly above the 40 percent average for the country, and nationwide the Kremlin fared better.
Saint Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov, for instance, still managed to keep his tenure, amid reports of fractions and ballot-stuffing.
In the 16 regions with gubernatorial races on Sunday, all of the Kremlin-backed incumbents or interim leaders won.
Despite the setback in Moscow, Russian officials were quick to claim victory. Moscow mayor Sergey Sobyanin said the elections went well.
People still assume that it doesn't really matter who's in power. If you can begin to change that perception, then you might be able to change Russian politics.
Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said: “The election campaign across Russia was very successful for United Russia. It won more in some places than others. But in general, countrywide, the party showed its political leadership.”
Still, against the backdrop of protests in Moscow, United Russia’s falling ratings and according to some polls, Putin’s eroding approval numbers, Sunday’s results demonstrate growing dissent.
This year, the regions also witnessed protests, against a new church in Yekaterinburg and in the northern region of Arkhangelsk against a landfill in the middle of the Taiga forest.
“The dynamic is clearly not good for the Kremlin, which is stuck in an old logic as if everything was like before, incapable of bringing a vision and new ideas to people”, said Stanovaya. “Russian society is changing, people are disoriented and frustrated, and want change too.”
According to the constitution, Putin should step down as president by 2024.
“There is definitely new hope for the opposition which has come up with a new mechanism to defeat the Kremlin, the trend is on their side”, said Stanovaya. “But there is also a strong desire for new political forces in Russia.
“Even Navalny is nothing new and maybe it’s time for them to find new ideas and propositions out of the traditional ‘anticorruption’ rhetoric.”
Looking ahead, Director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London Samuel Greene of said the opposition still had work to do to convince people they are capable of influencing change.
“They need to show that electing somebody else would actually change something in people’s lives,” he said. “People still assume that it doesn’t really matter who’s in power. If you can begin to change that perception, then you might be able to change Russian politics.”