Home / Politics / News /  Russians vote as Putin looks to tighten grip

MOSCOW : Russians headed to the polls in the final day of parliamentary elections that will determine whether President Vladimir Putin tightens his grip on the country or whether the opposition can challenge the dominance of a leader who is expected to remain in power for many years to come.

On the third day of voting, Russians will choose members of the lower house of the State Duma, where the ruling party, United Russia, currently has 334 of 450 seats. The party, which Mr. Putin founded but of which he is not a formal member, is widely expected to hold its large majority.

The race to control the Duma comes as Mr. Putin, who has sought to reassert Russia as a geopolitical power, attempts to reassure allies that his position remains firm amid an antagonistic relationship with the West.

Tensions between the U.S. and Russia remain high despite a summit in June between President Biden and his Russian counterpart. The U.S. has imposed sanctions on a number of government and business leaders close to Mr. Putin in punishment for what Washington says was Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.

Mr. Putin needs a parliament that will support his domestic and international policies and will back any decision he makes to extend his time in power beyond his current term, which expires in 2024. He has pushed through constitutional reforms that could allow him to remain in power for another 12 years.

The results of Sunday’s vote will also shed light on the fate of the country’s beleaguered opposition, which is known as the “non-systemic" opposition and is distinct from the array of state-sanctioned parties whose candidates oppose United Russia but largely support Kremlin policies.

The vote will determine whether the Kremlin has succeeded in snuffing out for now the non-systemic opposition that supports the jailed dissent and Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.

“It’s comfortable" for Mr. Putin if United Russia remains in control, said Evgeny Minchenko, president of an independent political studies agency in Moscow. “About 70% of the laws that go through the parliament are not made by members of parliament, but by the government and the administration of the president," he said.

Holding a 300-plus majority in parliament allows the ruling party to enact changes to the constitution. The vote also includes six gubernatorial races and three heads of regional republics.

For Mr. Putin, maintaining support of Russian citizens remains key. Polls show that Russians are widely unhappy with falling living standards, collapsing infrastructure and rising inflation.

Many Russians are also upset about declining freedoms, such as increasing internet censorship and a crackdown on independent media and antigovernment dissent.

Under a system known as managed democracy, in which Russians are largely allowed to vote and voice their opinions but are mostly powerless to change public policy, Mr. Putin has managed to contain any dissent that could challenge his rule.

But support for United Russia has declined in recent years. Only 29% of Russians were ready to vote for the party, according to a poll earlier this month by the state public-opinion research center VCIOM.

Still, Mr. Putin’s traditional voting bloc of pensioners, law enforcement and the military are likely to support the party out of loyalty to the longtime leader, analysts said.

Russians feel that “maybe we don’t like many of these people, but we trust you so much that we are even ready to vote for [them]," said Sergey Markov, the pro-Kremlin director of the Institute for Political Studies in Moscow.

Pre-election polls show some government-sanctioned opposition parties such as the Communist Party of the Russian Federation and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia could pick up some seats in the State Duma.

But the vote will likely show that non-systemic opposition figures such as Mr. Navalny’s associates and supporters are no longer a credible challenge, Mr. Minchenko said.

Ahead of the vote, Mr. Navalny’s supporters were detained or fled into exile, fearing arrest. Several opposition groups and independent media were outlawed as extremists or foreign agents, prohibiting them from running for office. Mr. Navalny was jailed earlier this year for violating parole hearings that he said he missed because he was recuperating in Berlin following a poisoning attack. Western officials have blamed the Kremlin for that attack.

“We have seen unprecedented pressure," said Ruslan Shaveddinov, a member of Mr. Navalny’s team. “We see how they are pressing from all sides, blocking all our resources and using criminal cases. Each member of our team has gone through multiple searches and administrative arrests and all my colleagues are involved in fabricated criminal cases," he said.

The dissident’s team had continued to push the strategy that it calls smart voting, which urges Russians to cast ballots for the strongest antigovernment candidate in each electoral district in an effort to detract support of the ruling party—a tactic shunned by some supporters of sanctioned opposition parties.

But the smart voting website was deemed illegal and banned, and on Friday the app meant to coordinate the activity became inaccessible on Apple and Google app stores. Russia’s state censor had accused U.S. tech giants of meddling in the vote by providing a platform for Mr. Navalny.

The Kremlin praised the removal of the apps as showing respect for Russia’s laws and has denied that there is anything untoward or undemocratic about the election process. And Mr. Putin has stressed the need for a credible vote.

Mr. Navalny’s team, however, accused the tech companies of caving to what they believe was an unreasonable government demand.

“They followed the Kremlin’s lead and became executors of acts of censorship," Ivan Zhdanov, director of Mr. Navalny’s now-banned Anti-Corruption Foundation said, while trying to remain optimistic. “Even in these conditions, we hope that people will come and vote in accordance with our recommendations."

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