Russians headed to the polls for the second of three days of voting on September 18 in elections already marred by uproar after Google and Apple were pressured by authorities to remove an opposition voting app from their online stores.
The ruling Kremlin-backed United Russia party is expected to win the parliamentary vote, following a clampdown by authorities on dissent that eliminated vocal Kremlin critics from the ballot and crushed independent media.
As the vote kicked off on September 17, jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny’s Smart Voting application disappeared from the Apple and Google online stores in what his associates slammed as censorship and bowing to pressure.
Navalny's team promoted the tool as a way for voters opposed to President Vladimir Putin to identify candidates who have the best chance to defeat a United Russia candidate -- even if that alternative candidate comes from one of the other main established political parties.
News agency AFP, citing sources familiar with the matter, reported Google and Apple's decision was taken under pressure from Russian authorities, including threats of serious criminal charges and arrest of local staff.
"This is, of course, a tremendous act of censorship," said Navalny spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh, who like others from his network have fled the country. “It's a pity that at the moment of stand-off between honest people and the corrupt regime, these companies played into the latter's hands.”
Navalny’s allies continued to promote Smart Voting using other networks.
In recent months, authorities have unleashed a sweeping crackdown against Navalny’s allies and engaged in a massive effort to suppress Smart Voting.
Mobilization Of Voters
The removal of Navalny’s app came as the ruling party appeared to be using administrative resources to force state workers and military personnel to vote on the first day of the elections.
At many polling stations across Russia, abnormal lines of state employees and the military were observed. Some election observers reported violations or anomalies.
Stanislav Andreychuk, co-chairman of the Golos independent election monitoring group, told Current Time that it appears state employees were coerced into voting on September 17 while they were at work, even if that meant not casting a ballot where they were registered.
“We understand that when such a mobilization takes place, it is a mobilization among those groups of voters who, in the opinion of the authorities, are most loyal to them,” he said.
“The authorities must first get these people to vote, while on the other hand try to demobilize all opponents so that they do not appear at the polling stations,” he said.
All 450 seats in the lower house of parliament, or State Duma, are up for grabs in the vote, which is being held alongside local polls in dozens of regions, including regional assembly and gubernatorial elections. Preliminary results are expected shortly after polls close on September 19.
Election officials said the vote needed to be spread over three days as a health precaution due to the COVID-19 pandemic, although crowded polls seemed to suggest that may not be a high concern.
Opposition activists and some liberal lawmakers extending the vote is intended to allow the Kremlin to manipulate turnout and possibly engineer a desired outcome.
Navalny’s team has called on voters to cast ballots on the last day, September 19, to reduce the chance their votes are discarded during the first two days of voting.
Aside from the decision to hold voting over three days, the Central Election Commission has made other tweaks to voting rules, such as sharply limiting international observers, limiting live-stream camera feeds from polling stations, and pushing for people in some regions to vote online.
Putin, who has been self-isolating since announcing this week that dozens of people in his inner circle got infected with COVID-19, voted online. That option is available in seven Russian regions this year.
Critics say online voting may be subject to manipulation.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said in August it would not send elections observers for the first time in nearly three decades due to "major limitations" imposed by Russian authorities.
Golos, an independent vote-monitoring group, said it expects” big fraud and falsifications” during the vote.
Polls before the election by the independent Levada Center show a majority of Russians were unhappy with how the Duma was functioning.
Polls show even deeper disdain with United Russia, a nominally independent party that is in fact closely linked to guidance from the Kremlin and the powerful presidential administration.
United Russia holds a supermajority in the chamber, but its popularity is currently the lowest in the nearly two decades it has been in existence.
Even the state-run pollster VTsIOM found United Russia’s support hovering around 29 percent.
By contrast, Putin, who is not a member, retains an approval rating of around 60 percent and has no genuine political rival.
WATCH: Do Russians Have Real Choices In The Parliamentary Elections? Voters Tell Us
However, his popularity has slipped in recent years, driven down partly due to sweeping pension reforms passed after his reelection in 2018, and perceptions that high-level corruption among government insiders is rampant and unchecked.
Wages have stagnated for a wide swath of the population, as the economy struggles with Western economic sanctions, higher taxes, mounting inflation, and fallout from the pandemic.
United Russia’s dismal approval ratings have posed a challenge for Kremlin domestic policy advisers, some of whom fear the party could lose its supermajority or otherwise suffer a legitimacy crisis with voter apathy.
"It is the Russian regime, rather than the public, which needs the elections," Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, said in an online commentary. “They serve to validate the regime’s legality and legitimacy, and also keep the so-called majority relatively mobilized.”
Three other parties currently have seats in the Duma, plus two seats held by lawmakers from two obscure parties.
The strongest is the Communist Party, which retains a strong following among older Russians. The two others are the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, headed by the flamboyant Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and A Just Russia, which this year merged with another relatively unknown party headed by a popular nationalist writer.
All three parties are nominally in opposition to United Russia, but in reality, they rarely vote against majority initiatives or those explicitly lobbied for by the Kremlin.
A loss of United Russia’s supermajority could make it more difficult for the Duma to ram through major legislation, such as constitutional amendments. That, in turn, would potentially complicate the run-up to the 2024 presidential election, when Putin’s current term is scheduled to end.
The Duma last year passed constitutional amendments that opened the door for Putin to stay in power beyond 2024. He has not indicated if he will.
Still, half of the Duma’s 450 seats are apportioned by party list, as opposed to single-mandate districts, which gives United Russia a formidable advantage.
“The Kremlin will get what it wanted: the Duma as an institute of support for a political system that is entering a stage not of transition, but effectively another reset in 2024,” Kolesnikov said.
Navalny, who is the Kremlin’s most potent domestic critic, has pushed Smart Voting as a way to chip away at United Russia’s dominance.
WATCH: How Navalny's 'Smart Voting' Works
Navalny has been in prison since January, when he was arrested upon his return from Germany where he had been recuperating from nerve-agent poisoning he blames on the Kremlin.
His foundation and political network were later designated an “extremist organization,” which barred the politician's allies from participating in elections.
Ahead of the election, Navalny urged Russians to avoid apathy and vote pro-Kremlin candidates out of power.
“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.
Russians have also been frustrated by the cycles of restrictions and conflicting public health guidance regarding coronavirus.
The country is going through a third wave of infections and deaths; nearly 1.6 million cases have been reported since the pandemic began; nearly 28,100 deaths have been reported. The real number of infections and deaths is believed to be higher.
The country’s vaccination effort is flagging badly, with many people deeply skeptical, despite Russia approving Sputnik V, the world’s first COVID-19 vaccine last summer.
Meanwhile, multiple independent media outlets have been shut down or harassed in recent months after authorities targeted them for being "foreign agents,” leaving state-run media in a dominant position to control information.
One of the more closely watched governor races is being held in the Far Eastern region of Khabarovsk, where the Kremlin last year ousted the popular local governor, Sergei Frugal, prompting months of street protests.