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  20 Sep 2021, 11:13

Pro-Kremlin party on track for majority after crackdown

  MOSCOW, Sept 20, 2021 (BSS/AFP) - President Vladimir Putin's United Russia
party was on track to win a strong majority in a parliamentary vote, results
showed Monday, after an election that followed an unprecedented crackdown on
the opposition.

  With 50 percent of votes counted, United Russia was ahead with 46.11
percent of the vote, followed by the Communist Party with 21.40 percent.

  The vote came in the wake of a clampdown that saw Putin's best-known
domestic foe Alexei Navalny jailed -- after he returned to Russia following a
poisoning he blames on the Kremlin -- and his organisations banned as
"extremist".

  In the lead-up to the election, all of Navalny's top allies were arrested
or fled the country, with anyone associated with his groups kept from
running.

  Navalny's team had called for opposition supporters to back other
candidates who could potentially defeat United Russia, most of them from the
Communists, and results indicated the "Smart Voting" campaign may have had
some success.

  United Russia's share of the vote was down from 54.2 percent in the last
parliamentary election in 2016, while the Communists saw their support grow
from 13.3 percent.

  - E-vote delays -

  Voting by party list accounts for only half of the lower house State Duma's
450 seats, however, and United Russia was dominating in the other half of
seats assigned according to single-mandate races.

  With 50 percent of those votes counted, United Russia candidates were ahead
in at least 193 of the 225 seats.

  United Russia held 334 Duma seats going into the election and if the trends
continued it appeared likely to at least hold on to a two-thirds majority.

  Three other parties appeared to have met the five percent threshold needed
to enter parliament -- the nationalist LDPR, the recently formed "New People"
party, and "A Just Russia", all with less than 10 percent.

  United Russia's general council secretary Andrei Turchak congratulated
supporters at party headquarters on a "clean and honest victory".

  But Navalny's allies said the vote was being falsified on a massive scale,
pointing especially to repeated delays in releasing the results of electronic
voting in liberal and opposition-friendly Moscow.

  "We have rattled their political system. We forced them to either admit
defeat or to falsify, in front of everyone, absolutely brazenly, without any
shame. To admit moral bankruptcy," key Navalny aide Leonid Volkov said during
a live stream on YouTube.

  Authorities had taken drastic measures to deter the "Smart Voting"
campaign, which provided lists of candidates with the best hope of denying
Kremlin-aligned politicians a seat.

  - Kremlin 'blackmail' -

  The campaign's website was shut down and on Friday Apple and Google removed
the Smart Voting app from their stores, causing an uproar among the
opposition who accused them of giving in to Kremlin "blackmail".

  Sources familiar with Google and Apple's decision told AFP the move was
taken under pressure from Russian authorities, including threats to arrest
the tech giants' local staff.

 
  The popular Telegram messenger also removed Navalny's Smart Voting bot, and
on Sunday Google Docs and YouTube videos containing the lists of recommended
candidates were blocked.

  Turnout was at 45 percent according to the latest figures released by the
election commission on Sunday.

  Critics had argued that online voting, new limits on election observers and
the polls being spread over three days -- a move officials said was to reduce
coronavirus risks -- all presented opportunities for fraud.

  As of Sunday evening, independent election monitor Golos -- which
authorities branded a "foreign agent" ahead of the polls -- had tracked over
4,900 reports of voting violations.

  - 'Trust' in Putin -

  While 68-year-old Putin remains popular, United Russia has seen its support
drop as living standards decline following years of economic stagnation.

  "There is no one to vote for," Andrei, a 33-year-old IT professional who
declined to give his last name, told AFP in Moscow.

  He cast his ballot in the "sham" elections, he said, to "at least show some
kind of protest against the current government".

  But Anna Kartashova, a 50-year-old pharmaceutical company manager in
Moscow, said she voted for United Russia because she "simply trusts" Putin.

  "We just don't see anyone else we can trust in the current political
landscape," she said.

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