Vladimir Putin's pro-Kremlin candidates suffer unusual losses in Moscow election after protests

The losses in Sunday's vote reflect Vladimir Putin's party's sinking popularity.

Pro-Kremlin candidates suffered substantial losses in Moscow’s city council elections on Sunday, an unusual blow to president Vladimir Putin’s ruling party after weeks of protests this summer saw tens of thousands of people demonstrate over the barring of opposition candidates from the vote.

The city council itself has little power, but the anti-Kremlin opposition had targeted its elections in an effort to demonstrate the unpopularity of Putin’s party, United Russia. While the Russian president himself remains popular, his party’s support has plummeted in polling, particularly in the capital.

Russia’s top opposition leader Alexey Navalny hailed Sunday’s result as a victory of his strategy of tactical voting, in which he had called on people to vote for any candidate with the best chance of defeating the Kremlin’s pick. In practice, this largely meant voting for candidates from the Communist Party, which acts as a mostly tame opposition.

With all votes counted on Monday, the Kremlin saw its majority in the 45-seat Parliament slump from 40 to 24. The Communists took 13 seats, while the nationalist A Just Russia party took three.

The liberal Yabloko party, that is allied with Navalny, also won all four seats where it fielded candidates. United Russia's leader in Moscow, Andrei Metelsky, also lost his seat.

Writing on his popular channel on the social media messenger, Telegram, Navalny called it a "fantastic result" and said it was proof his strategy, dubbed "Smart Voting" worked.

Aware that the opposition's candidates were unlikely to be allowed to participate, Navalny had called for people to make the tightly managed vote a "referendum" on United Russia. His group set up a website where people could learn which candidate would most likely defeat the pro-Kremlin candidates. A number of Russia's best-known activists joined the campaign.

It was difficult to assess how much of the result in Moscow reflected Navalny’s tactical voting or people simply turning to the Communists. But in either case, it showed the growing unpopularity of United Russia. Shortly before the vote, a poll by Russia’s only independent pollster, the Levada Center, showed just 11% of Muscovites were ready to vote for the party. Another poll in June by the state’s own agency, VTsIOM, put it at only 22%.

Facing such numbers, United Russia ran all of its candidates in Moscow's election as nominal "independents," without their party affiliation.

Sunday saw local elections take place across Russia, with the Kremlin faring better elsewhere. United Russia though also suffered a stunning loss in the far-eastern city Khabarovsk, where the party lost all of its seats to the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party and the Communists. The Kremlin had successes though in the governor races held Sunday, with all six of its candidates winning in the first round.

Moscow's vote was the most closely watched though. The normally little-noticed election attracted major attention following this summer's protests. They were sparked when authorities blocked virtually all anti-Kremlin candidates from running in mid-July. Tens of thousands of people joined demonstrations most Saturdays since then.

Authorities responded with the harshest crackdown in almost a decade, arresting hundreds and handing harsh prison sentences to several demonstrators. Police also raided the barred opposition candidates’ homes and jailed many of them, including Navalny.

After Sunday’s vote, Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin called the elections, "Perhaps the most emotional and really competitive in all of recent history," despite the absences of the anti-Kremlin candidates.

The poor showing for the party is worrying for the Kremlin, coming as Putin's own approval ratings have reached their lowest in years, though they remain relatively high. The party's unpopularity is particularly alarming with national parliamentary elections due to take place in 2021. The elections, combined with the crackdown on the protests, have galvanised the part of the population opposed to the Kremlin and the lack of political freedoms in the country.

At a polling station in the Moscow suburb of Planernaya on Sunday, Daria Ozerova, a 36-year-old Russian-language teacher, said she had voted for the Communist candidate following Navalny’s advice.

“There is no other choice," she said. "I’d like to have choice. We are here for competition. Real competition."

In Moscow, Navalny’s tactical voting produced some bizarre outcomes. The city's third district was won by Alexander Solovyev, an unknown figure who was widely believed to be a so-called "spoiler" candidate entered only to siphon votes away from a liberal candidate with the same name, Alexander Solovyev, a former head of the pro-democracy group, Open Russia. The real Solovyev in the end was barred from the election and then jailed, leaving the spoiler as the preferred candidate for Navalny's tactical voting. With that backing he unexpectedly defeated a pro-Kremlin candidate.

There were also some reports of vote rigging and dirty tricks across the country. The most controversial race was in Saint Petersburg, where the pro-Kremlin governor, Alexander Beglov, was facing an uphill struggle. Monitors there noted a 20% spike in turnout in the final two hours of voting, usually a tell-tale sign of mass ballot stuffing.

The independent monitoring group, Golos, said it had recorded 350 violations in St. Petersburg and 600 in Moscow.