Pro-Putin party suffers new setback in polls
President-elect Vladimir Putin suffered a setback on Monday after seeing his party's candidate trounced in a mayoral race that became the focus of Russia's nascent protest movement.
Official results from the central city of Yaroslavl showed ruling United Russia party candidate Yakov Yakushev picking up just 27.8 percent of the vote in a Sunday runoff against local independent rival Yevgeny Urlashov.
The Kremlin rival claimed 68.7 percent of the vote after seeing both the Communist Party and the liberal opposition rally around his candidacy in a sign of continued frustration in the poorer regions with Moscow-backed politicians.
“I am glad that the voters showed their courage and reason. They are tired and they want change,” the winner told Moscow Echo radio.
The defeat for the party that converged around Putin during his first two terms as president in 2000-2008 was especially painful because Yakushev had won the endorsements of both the local governor and the outgoing mayor.
More than 1,000 monitors from Russia’s protest movement descended on the city to observe the vote after sending many more to polling stations in Moscow for the March 4 presidential election.
The movement claimed Moscow as its biggest success after the capital became the only region of Russia in which ex-KGB spy Putin failed to pick up 50 percent of the vote.
He still secured a crushing win with nearly 64 percent of the national ballot — a sign that voter anger at the corruption and political mismanagement of the ruling elite has left Putin himself largely untouched.
The scale of his victory also took away much of the momentum from the record protests that emerged in response to a fraud-tainted December parliamentary ballot narrowly won by United Russia.
But the street movement’s leaders said Putin would have fared much worse had his election been watched as closely across the nation as it had been in Moscow.
They have since vowed to changed their tactics and make election monitoring one of their focal points as they seek to reverse more than a decade of the Kremlin’s stifling domination over politics.
“Urlashov’s victory is our victory,” the unregistered Solidarity movement of former cabinet minister Boris Nemtsov and retired chess king Garry Kasparov wrote on Twitter.
A top United Russia official said the party intended to learn from its mistakes as it prepares for other local races this year.
The protest movement still intends to stage one last grand event on the eve of Putin’s May 7 inauguration for a newly extended six-year term that will begin with Medvedev serving as his prime minster.
This continuity has particularly enraged opposition leaders who are pressing the Kremlin for new political rules.
Authorities have promised to make party registration easier for future elections. Medvedev also intends to meet some opposition leaders for a second time on Tuesday to discuss other reforms.
But Putin himself has refused to meet protest leaders.
Some analysts called the weekend vote an important boost to the opposition’s morale.
“This is an especially important result considering the downbeat mood the opposition was in after the elections,” said Carnegie Moscow Centre analyst Nikolai Petrov.