Moscow, Russia – It was supposed to be simple, a photo-op at the end of an election campaign. Russian President Vladimir Putin showed up to cast his ballot during Sunday’s municipal election in the Gagarinsky district in southwestern Moscow.
The campaign was so low-key that Kremlin-controlled television networks hardly mentioned it, and the turnout in Moscow barely reached 15 percent. The Kremlin knew the United Russia party, the ruling pro-Putin behemoth, would predictably win most of the 1,500 council seats.
In Gagarinsky district, it didn’t.
United Russia candidates lost all 12 seats in the district, a leafy neighbourhood of historical buildings dominated by the statue of first cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin on top of a 40-metre high titanium spire. Opposition candidates fielded by Yabloko, Russia’s oldest liberal democratic party, won here by a landslide.
Yulia Kuchumova, an IT expert and mother of three, was one of the 12 winners whose United Russia rivals included an 81-year-old film star, the mother of two famous circus performers, and top education and healthcare officials.
“We had very serious rivals and did not expect such a landslide,” Kuchumova, 33, told Al Jazeera.
Throughout Moscow, more than 250 anti-Kremlin candidates, most of them affiliated with Yabloko, got one-seventh of council seats, coming second in the vote after United Russia despite official pressure, bureaucratic hurdles and vote-rigging, according to Golos, Russia’s last remaining independent election monitor.
Their coalition, led by opposition leader Dmitry Gudkov, outran three political parties with a presence in the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, including the Communists with their traditionally active elderly voters.
“We are a number two political force to be reckoned with,” Gudkov, who was kicked out of the Duma for his criticism of Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, told a news conference in Moscow on Monday. “Even at such elections one can win, and we proved it.”
Their victory may seem minuscule and insignificant – similar elections throughout Russia on Sunday made United Russia an almost total winner. But their gains in Moscow are an unexpected thorn in the Kremlin’s side, and Russia’s marginalised, fractured and besieged opposition could use their seats as a springboard in the 2018 Moscow mayoral election.
After the election results were made public, the Kremlin tried to save face by welcoming them.
The vote shows “what pluralism and political competition are all about”, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists in a conference call.
“The political preferences of Muscovites are changing,” Valentin Gorbunov, head of the Moscow Election Committee, told Russian media.
Gudkov’s coalition used a groundbreaking online platform that resembled a Lego toy or a simple video game.
The platform helped more than 1,000 candidates – most of them inexperienced first-time politicians – file registration documents and financial reports, and design and print out campaign leaflets. It helped them transparently collect donations, build teams, post updates online, and even plan door-to-door campaigning.
“We created a new technology of running election campaigns; we call it ‘political Uber’, and this Uber opened up political doors to newcomers,” Gudkov said.
The platform’s creators wanted to eliminate the elitism of politics with its obligatory and expensive campaign headquarters, lawyers, press services and consultants, as well as reliance on television commercials and connections in the halls of power.
“We decided to change this paradigm in politics and make it accessible to the people,” Vitali Shkliarov, who led a team effort to create the platform, told Al Jazeera. “That’s why we have the first political incubator, political Uber that lets average people without party [affiliations], without big money, to participate.”
Before joining Gudkov, Shkliarov worked in various capacities on election campaigns of former US President Barack Obama and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. The experience, however, could not just be transplanted to Russian political soil because of fundamental legal and cultural differences, he said.
Another major factor that contributed to the success of the anti-Putin candidates was the Kremlin’s tactics of neglecting the campaign’s importance.
“The elections were not seen as that significant to make the presidential administration run it, they let it slide, and Gudkov used the chance and promoted his candidates by using a low turnout and mobilising a minority” of voters, Denis Volkov, a sociologist with the Moscow-based independent pollster Levada Center, told Al Jazeera.
Levada’s polls show only about 15 percent of Muscovites are ready to vote for liberal democrats, Volkov said.
Their image has been tarnished by hysterical and perennial campaigns on Kremlin-controlled television networks that accuse them of accepting money from the US State Department and plotting to dismember Russia at Washington’s behest.
What the “political Uber” could not overcome was a bag of tried-and-tested tricks the Kremlin has been using in elections for years.
Public school principals urged their students’ parents to vote for United Russia candidates, and government employees were massively forced to vote for them amid vote-rigging, ballot stuffing, and multiple voting, election monitor Golos told Radio Free Europe. Opposition candidates were denied registration and had their campaign leaflets damaged or destroyed, it said.
“The fight against campaign leaflets was horrible,” election winner Kuchumova said. “They were removed the minute after you glued them.”
Several opposition candidates were brutally beaten up, Russian media reported.
Unsurprisingly, Kuchumova thinks the job is not for the faint of heart.
“To be an honest municipal lawmaker that protects the interests of residents is a very dangerous job,” she said at the Yabloko office in central Moscow. “I see more and more often how municipal lawmakers fall victim to bandits.”
Earlier this week, her colleague had his ribs fractured during a heated debate at an illegal construction site. Dozens of municipal council members have faced pressure, threats, intimidation, and assaults in recent years, according to their first-hand accounts on social media, police statements and media reports.
But Kuchumova still plans to fight demolitions of historical buildings that stand in the way of lucrative construction projects. She wants to investigate shady companies that get hefty government contracts and forge documents allowing them to start the projects without residents’ consent.
She is indignant about illegal utility charges corrupt officials force on elderly residents. A former chemistry major and dedicated environmentalist, she wants to abolish illegal tree logging, soil-depleting lawn mowing and picking up of fallen leaves, and the use of poisonous chemicals against ice.
She thinks, however, that running for a Duma seat is hardly possible.
“Moving a level up is not that easy,” she said. “The level of corruption is much higher.”
Gudkov is a lot more optimistic.
With a small foothold in Moscow, his coalition can field candidates in the mayoral election next year. Coupled with unexpectedly massive anti-corruption rallies earlier this year, the anti-Putin Uber is now racing against Kremlin’s political tanks – and its scope can grow exponentially.
“The novelty of the system is that it can be replicated on an unbelievable level,” Shkliarov said.
The 2013 mayoral vote produced an unpleasant surprise for the Kremlin – opposition leader Alexey Navalny came second with a staggering 27 percent of the vote. Navalny almost ignored Sunday’s vote and reluctantly congratulated Gudkov, and the two may eventually lock horns in the mayoral race.
Gudkov’s coalition will also face a stumbling block called “the municipal filter” – an obligatory number of local councillors to back any mayoral hopeful. So far, only United Russia has enough backers to field a candidate.
“We will have to do everything possible to force the authorities to either abolish the municipal filter or change Moscow’s election law,” Gudkov said.