MOSCOW -- Russia’s ruling party, United Russia, which backs President Vladimir Putin, has kept its supermajority in the country’s parliament, sweeping elections that were marred with allegations of widespread ballot rigging and saw many of the Kremlin’s top opponents barred from running.
With virtually all ballots counted, Russia’s election’s commission said United Russia had taken nearly 50% of the vote and won nearly 90% of first-past-the-post districts, meaning the party will retain its two-thirds majority in the lower house of parliament, which allows it to change Russia’s constitution.
Russia’s elections are closely managed, and the pro-Kremlin party’s victory was seen as a foregone conclusion, but on Monday, opposition parties accused the Kremlin of using blatant fabrication to inflate the result and produce an overwhelming win even in Moscow, usually a center of dissent.
After polls closed Sunday night after three days of voting, early partial results showed several opposition parties and politicians making strong showings in the capital, with some seemingly in reach of victory with most votes counted.
But those results were all wiped out when, after many hours, authorities published results from online voting, which handed victories to pro-Kremlin candidates. Opposition parties, even those from the so-called "loyal opposition," cried foul, accusing the Kremlin of using the online votes to conceal vote manipulation and steal victory for its candidates.
The Communist Party, which largely acts as a tame opposition in the parliament, said it would not recognize the results in Moscow, where six of its candidates lost out once the online votes were added.
Critics started raising suspicions about Moscow’s online count after it took far longer for it to be completed than the paper ballot count for most of the rest of the country -- a sign, critics said, that officials were waiting to see how much they needed to alter the vote. The online voting was in effect a black box, with independent monitors unable to observe it or properly check how the results were signed off on by officials, independent monitors said. Workers at state companies and organizations have also reported being pressed by their managers to vote online en masse.
Several candidates called a protest at Moscow’s Pushkin Square on Monday. A few hundred people gathered under heavy rain to demonstrate, watched by a cordon of riot police.
"Such a giant difference between the results at the 'live' polling stations and the online vote can’t be true," Mikhail Lobanov, a Communist candidate with wide support among liberal voters, told the crowd, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Lobanov said he had been on track to beat Yevgeny Popov, a pro-Kremlin TV personality, by a margin of 10,500 votes before the online votes suddenly gave Popov a lead of 20,000 votes at the last moment.
There were also allegations of widespread analogue ballot rigging around Russia. Throughout the weekend, there was a stream of videos seeming to show elections officials stuffing wads of ballots into voting urns or trying to block monitoring cameras while others did so.
Independent researchers also spotted that Russia's central elections committee now encrypts the results data published on its website, a step reportedly intended to prevent researchers from crunching the data themselves, which in the past has allowed them to identify signs of rigging.
"Online voting represents right now represents an absolute evil -- a black box that no one checks," Sergey Shpilkin, a data scientist who in the past has used statistical analysis to demonstrate likely falsification in Russian elections, told Russian news website Meduza.
The head of Russia’s elections commission Ella Pamfilova in a video meeting with Putin said the elections had seen far fewer violations than usual and claimed Russia’s system was "one of the most transparent" in the world.
The United States and some European countries criticized the elections as unfair amid the Kremlin's use of repressive laws to prevent opponents from participating. Ned Price, the U.S. State Department's spokesperson, in a statement said the Russian government had conducted "widespread efforts to marginalize independent political figures" and had "severely restricted political pluralism and prevented the Russian people from exercising their civil and political rights."
United Russia took nearly 50% of the vote despite polls suggesting its support was around 30%, as high food prices and unpopular pension reforms have eaten into its popularity. Ahead of the elections, the Kremlin launched a campaign of repression on a scale unprecedented under Putin’s 20 year-rule, barring dozens of opposition candidates from running, with many arrested and some forced abroad.
It dismantled the movement of its fiercest critic Alexey Navalny, who was jailed in January after surviving a nerve agent poisoning last year.
Navalny, from jail, had sought to exploit the Kremlin party’s unpopularity at the elections with a tactical voting campaign called "Smart Voting," advising people to vote for any candidate with the best chance of beating United Russia.
On Monday, he claimed the campaign had worked, arguing the campaign’s recommended candidates had won 12 out of Moscow’s 15 districts before the online votes were added.
The Communist Party notably improved their share of the vote across Russia, taking around 19%, up from 13% five years ago, in a sign of a growing protest vote among Russians weary with Putin’s two-decade rule, experts said.
Several opposition figures and election monitors alleged the fraud in these elections was worse than in 2012, when a rigged parliamentary election prompted mass street protests, the largest ever under Putin.
This year, there appeared no sign those protests would be repeated amid a far more repressive environment in Russia. And though Navalny's team said they would support any peaceful demonstrations called to protest the falsification, they did not call for any themselves.