Vladimir Putin party win marred by ‘clone candidates,’ social media clashes

Russian President Vladimir Putin has tightened his grip on power, with his country’s pro-Kremlin ruling party keeping its parliamentary supermajority in legislative and gubernatorial elections that rivals said was rife with irregularities, including the alleged deployment of “clone candidates” to confuse voters in one key district.

The appearance on the ballot in St. Petersburg of individuals with nearly the same name and strikingly similar physical appearances to the opposition candidate there was just one of the fraudulent tactics at play. Critics say U.S. tech giants Apple and Google were pressured into facilitating voter suppression online.

Many opposition candidates were blocked from the ballot in the contest that ran from Friday through Sunday, a period preceded by a crackdown on Putin critics such as opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is serving a 2½-year prison sentence on suspect charges after being poisoned on an airplane.

During the months leading up to the vote, the Kremlin barred all candidates with ties to Navalny-linked organizations by declaring them extremist. Several prominent opposition figures were forced to leave Russia under pressure from the authorities.

By Monday, the government said results showed United Russia, the ruling party staunchly behind Mr. Putin, had won 49.8% of the vote to control 225 of the 450 seats in the parliament, or State Duma. Another 225 are chosen directly by voters, and official results showed United Russia leading in 198 of those races.

Such numbers amount to the two-thirds supermajority United Russia needs to make any constitutional changes or other moves to keep Mr. Putin in power. While the Russian president characterizes himself as an independent, United Russia is his de facto party.

In addition to the State Duma elections, voters cast ballots for the heads of nine Russian regions and in elections for 39 regional parliaments. Early results showed incumbents winning the gubernatorial races, with United Russia candidates doing well. Ramzan Kadyrov, the controversial head of the Chechen Republic and an ally of Mr. Putin, reportedly won his race with the support of 99.7% of the vote.

Russian election officials tried to emphasize the positive. Turnout was up slightly compared with legislative elections five years ago, and the vote percentage for United Russia dropped from 54.2% in 2016.

Central Election Commission head Ella Pamfilova said Monday that a record five parties appeared to have qualified for representatives in the State Duma, calling the vote “an expansion of the political diversity,”

Closely watched

The election was closely watched for signs that Mr. Putin‘s control might slip ahead of a presidential election slated for 2024. While it’s not clear whether he will run to extend a nearly quarter-century grip on power, choose a successor or outline some alternative path, the news agency said he‘s expected to keep his hand on the tiller. An obedient State Duma will be crucial to whatever he decides.

The Russian president, 67, a onetime Soviet KGB agent who has crafted an image of himself as a kind of 21st-century czar, has effectively held power in Moscow since 1999. The Duma approved sweeping constitutional changes last year to allow him to seek two more six-year terms in 2024 should he choose. Many saw the development as a pathway for Mr. Putin to remain in office until 2036, well into his 80s.

The Russian president thanked voters for giving him “trust” as results were announced.

Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov touted the election’s “competitiveness, transparency and fairness.”

But Kremlin critics said there were as many irregularities as occurred in a fraught 2011 Duma contest that was shrouded in claims of mass fraud and followed by months of anti-government and anti-Putin protests. The Biden administration, the British government and the European Union raised deep concerns about the fairness of the campaign in the run-up to the voting.

There were numerous reports of violations on Sunday, including ballot-stuffing. Videos on social media showed people trying to stuff thick piles of ballots into boxes. Brawls with election monitors were also caught on camera.

“With such a colossal number of violations, the results of the State Duma elections cannot be recognized as clean, honest or legitimate,” said Lyubov Sobol, an aide to Mr. Navalny, told the Reuters news agency.

Oleksiy Goncharenko, a member of parliament in neighboring Ukraine, said the election “removed any lingering doubts that Russia has ceased to be a democracy and exposed the true authoritarian face of the Putin regime.”

“Long before polling stations opened across Russia on Friday, any chance of a free or fair election had already long since disappeared,” Mr. Goncharenko wrote in a commentary published on the website of the Atlantic Council think tank.

“In the months leading up to the election, most genuine opposition candidates were prevented from standing, with some jailed or forced into exile,” he wrote. “The last remaining non-regime media outlets were muzzled, and the Russian internet purged of dissenting voices.”

Mr. Goncharenko is a member of Ukraine’s European Solidarity party, which is seeking Ukrainian membership in the European Union. Ukrainian-Russian tensions are still soaring over Russia‘s 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and Moscow’s allegations of U.S.-meddling in Kyiv.

Among the more eye-opening irregularities in this weekend’s contest was the alleged use of “clone candidates” in St. Petersburg, where a United Russia candidate won against opposition challenger Boris Vishnevsky.

Mr. Vishnevsky said two other candidates on the ballot had changed their names and grown beards to resemble him and confuse voters in a bid to propel a Kremlin-aligned candidate to victory.

Mr. Vishnevsky, who is from the liberal Yabloko party, told the news website Znak.com that he was prevented from filing a formal complaint against the vote.

The Kremlin reportedly also blocked a key website called Smart Voting, devised by Mr. Navalny and his supporters to educate voters on the best local candidate to support to defeat the United Russia nominee, and pressured U.S. tech giants Apple and Google to remove an app featuring it from their Russian online stores. The tech giants made the move as voting began Friday.

Google also denied access to two documents on its online service Google Docs that listed candidates endorsed by Smart Voting. 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 Mr. Navalny.

Mr. Durov said he wanted to respect the laws prohibiting campaigning on voting days, but critics quickly pointed out that he 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 have not commented on the charges, but the Associated Press reported that a person with direct knowledge of the matter said Google was forced to remove the app because it faced legal demands by regulators and threats of criminal prosecution in Russia.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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