Russians go to polls after summer of protests

Anna SMOLCHENKO
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Local polls take place against a backdrop of tension after opposition leader Alexei Navalny served 30 days in jail for urging protests over the exclusion of opposition allies

Local polls take place against a backdrop of tension after opposition leader Alexei Navalny served 30 days in jail for urging protests over the exclusion of opposition allies

Russians are set to vote in local elections on Sunday following a hugely controversial campaign in Moscow that degenerated into the biggest police crackdown on protesters in nearly a decade.

Municipal and regional polls will be held across the vast country, but most attention will be focused on the Moscow parliament vote following the arrests and jailings of independent would-be candidates and their supporters.

Analysts say the results of the vote will be keenly watched ahead of parliamentary elections in 2021 and will help shape Russia's political future as President Vladimir Putin enters his third decade in power.

Over the past weeks tens of thousands have taken part in Moscow protests demanding a fair vote after allies of opposition leader Alexei Navalny were barred from the election. Rap stars and prominent bloggers backed the demonstrations.

Authorities responded with a police crackdown -- the biggest since a wave of protests in 2011-12 against Putin's return to the Kremlin after a stint as prime minister.

Tatyana Stanovaya, head of the R.Politik analysis firm, said the campaign exposed a growing rift between authorities bent on preserving the status quo and Russians wanting political change.

"The Moscow parliament elections have become a litmus test of the authorities' ability to accept this new reality," Stanovaya told AFP.

"They sought to act and think just like in the old times. Putin believes everything is fine."

Authorities briefly jailed nearly all opposition politicians seeking to get on the ballot in Moscow. Several people were also imprisoned for alleged violence against police even though opposition supporters said their rallies were peaceful.

One man was sentenced to five years over a tweet in which he called for attacks on the children of police in response to the crackdown.

- 'Smart voting' -

Some 7.2 million people are eligible to elect 45 lawmakers in the Moscow parliament, which is dominated by the ruling United Russia party and never opposes the policies of staunchly pro-Kremlin Mayor Sergei Sobyanin.

Authorities are hoping to maintain their grip on the legislature but not a single candidate is formally running on the United Russia ticket as the party's popularity hits rock bottom.

Navalny has put forward a "Smart Voting" plan urging Muscovites to support those who have the highest chances of beating pro-Kremlin candidates. Most of them are Communists.

The 43-year-old lawyer describes the vote as a referendum on whether Russians trust authorities and the ruling party.

"The only way to say 'NO' is coordinated voting for the strongest competitors of the United Russia candidates," he wrote.

"'Smart voting' is a protest," said Lyubov Sobol, a lawyer for Navalny's Anti-Corruption Fund who refused food for more than a month after her exclusion from the ballot.

"It's a protest vote against good-for-nothing candidates of the ruling party, thieves and scoundrels who do not act in people's interests," she said on Twitter.

The 31-year-old has emerged as the brightest star in a new generation of political challengers, with videos of her resisting authorities going viral.

Navalny's initiative has split the opposition however, with self-exiled Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky urging Muscovites to only vote for those who condemn political repression.

The chief of the central election commission, Ella Pamfilova, said that a dozen opposition candidates were disqualified because they did not provide the right papers or faked some of their supporters' signatures.

She insisted that the elections would be fair, adding: "It's unacceptable when they try to discredit our work."

- 'Monstrous affair' -

Victoria Popova, a 30-year-old illustrator, called the Moscow campaign and ensuing crackdown a "monstrous affair".

"This summer some of my friends have decided to leave Russia," she told AFP.

Popova said she wanted to vote for Sobol but would now back the liberal Yabloko party's candidate Sergei Mitrokhin, even though she did not really like him.

Elections will take place in each of the country's 85 regions.

Russians will elect governors in 16 regions and elections to legislative assemblies will take place in 13 regions, including Crimea which was annexed by Moscow from Ukraine in 2014.

The race for the governor's seat in Saint Petersburg has become the most controversial campaign outside Moscow, with the Kremlin backing deeply unpopular acting city chief Alexander Beglov.

Observers say discontent may not necessarily translate into wide-scale protest voting in the regions. But they expect more protest rallies in the coming months.

"Across various cities and social strata, the situation in Russian society is becoming inflammable," Stanovaya said.

"You just have to light a match."