United Russia keeps grip in elections but critics make gains

The regional votes come after prominent opponent Alexei Navalny was poisoned.

A woman wearing a face mask leaves a voting booth

The main Kremlin party has retained its dominance in regional elections but the opposition made gains in some areas in a challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to early official results released on Monday.

Voters in dozens of Russian regions cast ballots on Sunday to elect regional governors, members of provincial legislatures and city councils.

The votes come weeks after the Kremlin’s most prominent critic, Alexei Navalny, was poisoned with Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok.

Many of Alexei Navalny’s supporters have pushed a ‘smart voting’ strategy (Dmitri Lovetsky/AP)

Sunday’s vote was an important test for his supporters, who were campaigning to win seats in several regional legislatures.

In the city of Novosibirsk, which Mr Navalny visited days before falling ill on August 20, the head of his regional headquarters, Sergei Boiko, won a seat in the city council.

The main Kremlin party, United Russia, which Mr Navalny has contemptuously dubbed a “party of crooks and thieves”, lost its majority on Novosibirsk’s city council, according to the preliminary returns.

In Tomsk, the Siberian city Mr Navalny departed from when he collapsed on the plane to Moscow, his representative Ksenia Fadeyeva also secured a city council seat.

She thanked voters for their support, tweeting “it was important to win after what happened”.

“Navalny was poisoned in Tomsk, and this is the best counter-blow from our headquarters,” associate Ivan Zhdanov said on Twitter.

In many regional races, Mr Navalny’s supporters have pushed a “smart voting” strategy, urging voters to support the candidates who have the best chance of defeating those who run on United Russia tickets, irrespective of their political affiliation.

That approach seemed to work in some of the races, with candidates for the Communist Party, socialist-oriented Just Russia and the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party posting gains in several regions.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/Kremlin/AP)

The regional elections were a key test for the Kremlin after the July 1 constitutional vote that could allow Mr Putin to stay in power until 2036.

His popularity reached a peak after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea but dwindled steadily in the following years under the impact of economic woes and the government’s unpopular decision to raise the retirement age.

Plummeting incomes and rising unemployment during the coronavirus outbreak further dented his approval ratings.

In a challenge to the Kremlin, residents of the city of Khabarovsk on the border with China have staged regular rallies for two months to protest the arrest of the local governor.