Pro-Kremlin party on course to retain majority in parliament

A member of an election commission pulls ballots out of a box preparing to count them at a polling station after the parliamentary elections in Nikolayevka in Bakhchysarai, Crimea, Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021. From the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean, Russians across eleven time zones voted Sunday on the third and final day of a national election for a new parliament, a ballot in which the pro-Kremlin ruling party is largely expected to retain its majority after months of relentless crackdown on the opposition. (AP Photo)

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s ruling party was on course Monday to retain the super majority needed to ensure President Vladimir Putin’s continued grip on power after parliamentary elections that most opposition politicians were barred from and that were marred by multiple reports of violations.

The vote has been watched closely as key to the runup to the 2024 presidential election. It’s not yet clear whether Putin will run again, choose a successor or outline a different path — but he is expected to keep his hand on the tiller whatever he decides, and an obedient State Duma, or parliament, is crucial to those plans.

Results from about 95% of the country’s polling stations gave the ruling United Russia party 49.64% of the vote for the 225 seats apportioned by parties, according to the Central Election Commission. Another 225 lawmakers are chosen directly by voters, and the results Monday morning showed United Russia candidates leading in 199 of those races.

Top United Russia official Andrei Turchak suggested that the party will get 315 out of the 450 seats — a result that would give them more than two-thirds of the legislature’s seats.

In fact, the results indicated there would be almost no opposition voices in the Duma at all, with three other parties that usually tow the Kremlin line set to take many of the remaining seats, along with the New People party, which was formed last year and is regarded by many as a Kremlin-sponsored project.

Cries that the results had been manipulated mounted Monday, when the results of online voting in Moscow were still not available to the public. The results in the other six regions that were allowed to vote online have been released. In Moscow, approvals of the ruling party have always been particularly low and protest voting has been widespread, and Kremlin critics were calling for protests of the vote later in the day.

Any fraud allegations aside, the Kremlin sweep was widely expected since few opposition candidates were even allowed to run this year after Russian authorities unleashed a sweeping crackdown on Kremlin critics.

Organizations linked to imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny have been declared extremist, and anyone associated with them was barred from seeking public office by a new law. Navalny is serving 2½-year prison sentence for violating parole over a previous conviction he says is politically motivated.

Other prominent opposition politicians faced prosecution or were forced to leave the country under pressure from the authorities.

Navalny’s team still hoped to make dents in United Russia’s dominance with their Smart Voting strategy, which promoted candidates who had the best chance at defeating those backed by the Kremlin. However, a massive effort by authorities to suppress the strategy has been underway in recent weeks.

The government blocked the Smart Voting website and pressured Apple and Google to remove an app featuring it from their Russian online stores — a move the tech giants took as voting began Friday. Google also denied access to two documents on its online service Google Docs that listed candidates endorsed by Smart Voting, and YouTube blocked similar videos. In addition, the founder of the Russian messaging app Telegram, Pavel Durov, on Saturday disabled a Smart Voting chatbot set up by allies of Navalny.

Durov said he wanted to respect the laws prohibiting campaigning on voting days, but critics quickly pointed out that the didn’t disable similar chatbots imitating Smart Voting and didn’t remove the Moscow mayor’s call to vote for United Russia candidates.

Apple and Google did not respond to a request for comment. However, a person with direct knowledge of the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that Google was forced to remove the app because it faced legal demands by regulators and threats of criminal prosecution in Russia.

The voting was also marred by numerous reports of violations, including ballot-stuffing. Some Kremlin critics said that there were as many violations as in 2011, when reports of mass fraud in the parliamentary election triggered months of anti-government and anti-Putin protests.

The election this year was extended to three days, and in seven of Russia’s 80-plus regions voters were able to cast their ballots online. Officials said the measures were taken to reduce crowding at the polls during the coronavirus pandemic, but election monitors said that they created more room for manipulating the results.

There were particular concerns about voting in Moscow, where nearly 2 million votes were cast online.

“Where are the results of online voting (in Moscow)?” Navalny’s close ally Lyubov Sobol wrote on Facebook. “They’re not releasing them in order to rig more votes for United Russia candidates?”

Valery Rashkin, a senior member of the Communist Party who ran for reelection in this year’s race, urged supporters to gather at the Pushkinskaya square in the center of Moscow on Monday evening to “discuss” election results and protest the reported violations. “Come out with us to fight for our rights!” wrote Rashkin, who was backed by the Smart Voting strategy and was initially leading the race but lost to a United Russia opponent.

Russian news site Ura.ru on Monday morning released a video showing that the square has already been fenced off and surrounded by police vans.