Moscow (CNN)Russians are casting votes to pick regional legislators and officials in an election seen as a serious test for the pro-Kremlin United Russia party. About 160,000 candidates are seeking seats in local parliaments and 20 regions are electing a new governor, according to the Central Elections Committee.
The vote comes a few weeks after the suspected poisoning of Russia’s leading opposition figure Alexey Navalny. He fell ill on a tour to Siberia where he met local candidates taking part in his project called “Smart Voting” and filmed investigation reports on the activities of local United Russia members.
The “Smart Voting” strategy promoted by Navalny urges Russians to vote tactically in support of a single candidate on any ballot most capable of unseating an incumbent from United Russia.
Navalny unveiled “Smart Voting” during local elections in Moscow and St. Petersburg in 2018, costing United Russia dozens of seats in regional bodies. This year, Navalny headquarters runs the platform under the “Nullify United Russia” slogan in an apparent reference to a recent constitutional amendment resetting the clock on Vladimir Putin’s presidential term count.
United Russia’s popularity declined in the past years as its image has been marred by unpopular reforms and corruption scandals, many of them exposed by Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, with Navalny himself giving the party a moniker “the party of crooks and thieves.”
This is the first election Russia has held since the vote on controversial constitutional amendments that gave Putin grounds to stay in power until 2036.
The vote spans three days between September 11-13 in an attempt to limit crowds and prevent the spread of coronavirus, a practice adopted in the July vote on constitutional amendments, which independent monitoring organizations say lowers voting transparency and makes it easier to falsify votes.
“Early voting traditionally makes the election process much less transparent,” monitoring organization Golos said in a statement. “The lack of proper public control is especially important, given that on the first day of voting the methods of administrative mobilization of voters were massively used and local administrations actively interfered in the work of election commissions.”
The vote could turn into a popularity test for the ruling pro-Putin United Russia party in a year that has seen a controversial pandemic response from Russian regional leaders, record-low approval ratings for Putin, and unrest in some regions over pressing local issues such as the arrest of popular governor Sergey Furgal in the far-eastern city of Khabarovsk.
The protests in Khabarovsk have raged for weeks since July. Furgal, often referred to locally as “the people’s governor,” beat a Kremlin-backed candidate from the ruling United Russia party in the 2018 local elections in a surprising single round. He refused to drop out of the race under pressure from his Kremlin-backed opponent, who had offered to allow him to serve as his deputy. He has been portrayed as disloyal to Putin and the Kremlin.
The results of this vote could serve as a bellwether for the key 2021 elections to the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of the parliament, where United Russia controls the majority of the seats.