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Opposition claims mass fraud after Putin party sweeps vote

MOSCOW: Members of a local electoral commission empty a ballot box at a polling station after the last day of the three-day parliamentary election in Moscow. – AFP

MOSCOW: Russia’s opposition accused the authorities of mass voter fraud as election results yesterday showed the ruling United Russia party winning a sweeping majority in parliament. The three-day vote that ended on Sunday followed an unprecedented crackdown on critics of President Vladimir Putin and came with pre-election polls showing United Russia’s popularity at a historic low.

But the party still claimed a two-thirds majority in the lower house State Duma, with United Russia’s Andrei Turchak saying it was a “convincing and clean victory”. He told reporters the party had taken 120 seats from the party list and 195 single-mandate seats-a total of 315 seats from 450. It was a drop from the 334 seats United Russia held before the election, but still enough for the party to enact major legislation including changes to the constitution. With 95 percent of votes counted by 1000 GMT yesterday, United Russia was ahead with 49.6 percent of the vote followed by the Communist Party with 19.2 percent.

‘Truly unbelievable’
Predictions by state-run pollsters had suggested United Russia winning only around 30 percent. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov hailed the “competitiveness, openness and honesty” of the elections, saying it was clear that “United Russia is the main preference of the voters”. But allies of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, Russia’s leading opposition figure, called the results outlandish.

“This is truly unbelievable. I remember the feeling in 2011, when they stole the election. The same is happening right now,” said Navalny’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh. Claims of widespread fraud in 2011 sparked huge protests led by Navalny, who was arrested in January and jailed on old fraud charges following a poisoning he blamed on the Kremlin.

His allies said the vote was being falsified on a massive scale, pointing especially to repeated delays in releasing the results of electronic voting in opposition-friendly Moscow. The European Union said the elections had suffered from intimidation and limited “credible” monitoring, while Germany called for fraud claims to be “clarified”. Navalny’s organizations were banned as “extremist” ahead of the election and his top allies were arrested or fled and anyone associated with his groups was kept from running.

Gains for Communists
Navalny’s team had called for opposition supporters to back other candidates who could potentially defeat United Russia, most of them from the Communist Party, and results indicated the “Smart Voting” campaign may have had some impact. United Russia’s share of the vote was down from 54.2 percent in the last parliamentary election in 2016, while the Communists saw their support grow from 13.3 percent. Three other parties appeared to have met the five percent threshold needed to enter parliament-the nationalist LDPR, the recently formed “New People” party, and “A Just Russia”, all with less than 10 percent.

The Communist Party’s veteran leader Gennady Zyuganov said he was sure votes had been stolen from his party. “These are fake elections that nobody needs, and they are deepening social divisions in society,” Zyuganov, whose party has been accused of toeing the Kremlin line in the past, told reporters yesterday. He said the Communists had “received colossal support” and that the “stealing of votes” had undermined trust in Putin and his government. Navalny’s top aide Leonid Volkov said the tactical voting project had “rattled” Russia’s political elite.

“We forced them to either admit defeat or to falsify, in front of everyone, absolutely brazenly, without any shame. To admit moral bankruptcy,” Volkov said during a post-election live stream on YouTube. Authorities took drastic measures to deter the “Smart Voting” campaign, which provided lists of candidates with the best hope of denying Kremlin-aligned politicians a seat.

The campaign’s website was shut down and Apple and Google removed the Smart Voting app from their stores, reportedly under threats to arrest their local staff. The popular Telegram messenger also removed Navalny’s Smart Voting bot, and Google Docs and YouTube videos containing the lists of recommended candidates were blocked.

Turnout was at 45 percent, according to the latest figures released by the election commission on Sunday. Critics had argued that online voting, new limits on election observers and the polls being spread over three days-a move officials said was to reduce coronavirus risks-all presented opportunities for fraud. Putin, 68, remains widely popular but United Russia has seen its support drop as living standards have declined following years of economic stagnation. – AFP


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