Kremlin-Backed Party Takes Early Lead in Duma Vote Amid Tampering Allegations


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MOSCOW —The Kremlin-backed ruling United Party is on track to victory in Russia's lower house of parliament, early results showed, after a three-day voting process that was marred by irregularities and allegations of ballot tampering.

The Central Election Commission said with about 10% of votes counted after polls closed Sunday, United Russia, which strongly backs President Vladimir Putin, had 38.6% of the vote, followed by the Communist Party with 25.2% and the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party with 9.6%.

The elections lacked a significant opposition presence after authorities declared organizations linked to imprisoned Alexey Navalny, the Kremlin's most vocal critic, to be extremist. The voting was also marred by numerous reports of violations, including ballot-stuffing.

Because of the system of party-list voting combined with single-mandate voting districts, it wasn't immediately clear how the results would translate into a breakdown of seats in the new Duma.

United Russia, which currently holds 334 seats in the 450-seat Duma, is looking to keep its supermajority in the legislature, which allows it to change the constitution. But the party is deeply unpopular, and surveys from independent pollsters have shown its approval rating at the lowest level in the two decades since it was established.

In the last national vote in 2016, United Russia won just more than 54% of the vote.

Apathy is another major concern for the authorities, as Russian voters grow increasingly cynical about how free and fair elections are in the country. As of midafternoon Sunday, turnout at polling stations nationwide stood around 43%, the Central Election Commission said.

In addition to being a test for United Russia, the three-day vote was also a major test for Navalny, the jailed corruption crusader whose allies had invested heavily in their Smart Voting strategy, aimed at eroding United Russia's stranglehold on politics.

This year, most of the candidates endorsed by Smart Voting are from the Communist Party, even though it and two other parties in the Duma rarely vote against majority initiatives or those explicitly lobbied for by the Kremlin.

"If the United Russia party succeeds, our country will face another five years of poverty, five years of daily repression, and five wasted years," a message on Navalny's Instagram account read on the eve of the elections.

In recent months, authorities unleashed a sweeping crackdown against Navalny's political network, designating it an extremist organization and barring the politician's allies from participating in elections.

Navalny himself is in prison serving a 2½-year sentence on charges his allies say were politically motivated.

As the voting began on Friday, however, Navalny's Smart Voting app disappeared from the Apple and Google online stores. Telegram, a popular messaging app and a key tool for Navalny's team to get out its messaging, also removed a Smart Voting bot. YouTube - which is owned by Google - also took down a video that contained the names of candidates they had endorsed. And Google also blocked access to a Navalny Google Doc, which circulated a text copy of all the Smart Voting endorsed candidates.

About 50 websites run by Navalny have also been blocked, including the one dedicated to Smart Voting.

The vote, which is being held alongside elections for regional governors and local legislative assemblies, took place amid widespread reports of irregularities.

On the first day, there were unusually long lines at some polling stations. Golos, an independent election-monitoring group, suggested state workers and military personnel were being forced by United Russia and government authorities to vote.

Across the country, there were reports of ballot box stuffing and "carousel voting," in which voters are bused into multiple polling stations as an organized group. It's unclear, however, to what extent the fraud reports would affect the final vote.