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Russia’s ruling pro-Kremlin party is likely to renew its supermajority as parliamentary elections conclude on Sunday, following a campaign marked by a crackdown on supporters of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
The United Russia party, which backs President Vladimir Putin, is expected to win the vast majority of the 450 seats in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, amid popular anger at falling living standards.
Despite poll ratings as low as 27 per cent, the Kremlin is seeking to deliver a resounding victory for the ruling party in the last vote before Putin’s current presidential term expires in 2024.
Although Putin, 68, is much more popular than United Russia, maintaining a supermajority for the party is key for the Kremlin to pass its agenda, including constitutional reforms last year that potentially extend Putin’s rule until 2036 and several laws used to crush Navalny’s supporters in the lead-up to the vote.
Dozens of opposition candidates were struck from the ballot, several of them over their ties to Navalny. Several who did make it on have accused the Kremlin of running spoiler candidates with almost identical names — and, in at least one case, appearance — to split the protest vote.
The Kremlin also moved to crush a tactical voting campaign by Navalny’s supporters to direct discontent towards one of the Kremlin-run opposition parties that was allowed on the ballot.
Apple and Google removed Navalny’s “smart voting” app from their stores on Friday after Russia threatened to arrest their employees. Google then removed two documents and a video that listed officially approved candidates which Navalny’s team think have the best chances of beating United Russia in their districts.
“They’ve opened Pandora’s box,” Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s chief of staff, wrote on Facebook. “It’ll all end badly.”
As part of its campaign strategy, the Kremlin has sought to drive its supporters to the polls while dampening turnout among the opposition through a mixture of blandishments and coercion, analysts say.
Huge lines formed outside some polling stations as voting began on Friday, with some telling Russian media they were state employees who had been coerced to the polls at their workplaces.
In Moscow, authorities have also raffled off prizes for people who vote online, including apartments and cars.
“The hope is that people who are against the authorities stay at home, and those who depend on them or support United Russia go to the polls,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of political consultancy R.Politik. “They [the Kremlin] need to do as much as they can, using all sorts of techniques, to make those people vote.”
Turnout nationwide stood at 35 per cent nationwide on Sunday morning after the first two days of voting, according to the election commission.
Election monitors posted security camera footage from polling stations on to social media showing apparent violations, including a hand that emerged from behind a Russian flag in the Siberian city of Kemerovo to stuff votes into a ballot box, pre-filled ballots for United Russia in Moscow and alleged vote-buying in the Far East region.
But Ella Pamfilova, chair of the election commission, said just six instances of ballot-stuffing had been identified and only 7,000 ballots were invalidated.
In the months leading up to the vote, Russia also banned Navalny’s foundation, prompting most of his most prominent allies to leave the country, and designated several independent media outlets and NGOs as “foreign agents.”
The Kremlin has justified the crackdown as necessary to thwart foreign interference in the election.
“Obviously, there isn’t any serious western influence in Russian politics, but part of the Russian authorities believe the west is really trying to harm Russia,” said Mikhail Vinogradov, a political scientist.
“Now the plan to ban everything is becoming as radically absurd as possible, so the obvious question is whether they go on to ban all forms of social activity, or look to set new rules of the game once everyone’s been scared off.”