The Kremlin’s liberalization of the electoral process failed to materialize, with authorities on the ground coming up with new methods of meddling with the vote, an independent watchdog said on Tuesday.
“The attitude hasn’t changed, only [electioneering] technologies did,” regional expert Alexander Kynev, a member of Golos group, said at a press conference in Moscow.
Russia is facing a round of regional polls on Sunday, with five of its 83 regions set to elect governors and six to choose new regional legislatures. Seven regional capitals will also renew their legislatures, and a number of other cities and districts will select mayors or local legislators.
Local authorities have cut back on direct pressuring of unwanted candidates during this campaign cycle, Kynev said. In the past, oppositional campaign materials were often banned from distribution or arrested outright, often on questionable pretexts and with police violence.
But instead, more opposition candidates are being kicked off the ballots at the last moment, Kynev said.
Meanwhile, officials running for reelection are getting a powerful PR boost from the state-controlled media, which constantly tout their alleged achievements on the job, said experts of Golos, the group that earned its name through meticulous tracking of on-the-ground violation reports during the recent parliamentary and presidential elections.
The authorities are also trying to discredit the elections in the eyes of protest voters by fielding oddball candidates, said Grigory Melkonyants, deputy executive director of Golos. A prime example is Sergei “Spider” Troitsky, a legend of campy heavy metal who is running in the mayoral elections in the city of Khimki just outside Moscow.
Physical violence is also in the cards, experts said. A favorite for mayoral elections in the city of Voskresensk in Moscow Region was beaten up last Thursday – with a local newspaper allegedly reporting the attack the day before it happened.
The Sunday polls would be the first major vote session after a batch of amendments to election legislation came into force, prompted by the mass anti-Kremlin protests that followed the widely questioned parliamentary elections last December.
Election rules, radically tightened by the Kremlin in the 2000s, were relaxed, easing the creation of new political parties, whose number has gone up from seven to 40 in six months.
Direct gubernatorial elections, abolished in 2005, were reinstated in May, though hopefuls still have to pass the “municipal filter,” gathering signatures in support of their bid from district legislators.
The Kremlin used the reform to dismiss accusations of cracking down on the opposition. Rules for public rallies were seriously tightened, a handful of bills that allegedly could be used for media censorship were passed, and houses of opposition leaders were searched in recent months.
“But cosmetic changes [to legislation] are not enough,” Melkonyants said.
The ruling United Russia party is poised to win four out of five gubernatorial elections on Sunday, but outcomes of most other polls is less certain, Kynev said.