MOSCOW – The head of Russia's Communist Party, the country's second-largest political party, is alleging widespread violations in the election for a new national parliament in which his party is widely expected to gain seats.
Late Saturday, a YouTube video in which associates of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny recommended whom to vote for in order to undermine the dominant United Russia party was blocked in Russia. The video remained accessible through non-Russian servers.
Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov said Saturday — the second of three days of voting in the election — that police and the national elections commission must respond to reports of “a number of absolutely egregious facts” including ballot-stuffing in several regions.
The Golos election-monitoring movement and independent media also reported violations including vote-buying and lax measures for guarding ballots at polling stations.
Central Elections Commission head Ella Pamfilova said later Saturday that more than 6,200 ballots have been annulled in five regions for procedural violations and ballot-stuffing.
The United Russia party, which is diligently loyal to President Vladimir Putin, appears certain to retain its dominance in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament. Still, some projections suggest the party could lose its current two-thirds majority, which is enough to change the constitution. The Communists are expected to pick up the biggest share of any seats lost by United Russia.
Although the Communists generally support Kremlin initiatives in the parliament, their gaining seats would be a loss of face for United Russia. The Communists are seen as potentially benefiting from the “Smart Voting” program promoted by Navalny and his team, which aims to weaken United Russia by advising voters on which candidates are in the strongest position to defeat United Russia's candidates.
However, it's unclear how effective the program will be after the YouTube blockage, which came a day after Apple and Google removed Smart Voting apps from their stores under Kremlin pressure. Authorities previously blocked access to its website. Navalny's organizations have been declared extremist, blocking anyone associated with them from running for office, thereby eliminating most significant opposition candidates from the election.
The Telegram messaging app, founded by Russian-born entrepreneur Pavel Durov, also blocked Smart Voting. Durov said Saturday that the service was blocking all election-related bots in order to conform with laws banning campaigning once voting starts.
In St. Petersburg, voter Pavel Ivanov said he had access to Smart Voting and followed its advice to vote for a small party that “does not meet my preferences to the full extent but (will) present a certain opposition to the ruling party.”
Zyuganov said the party has tallied at least 44 incidents of voting violations and the Communists have applied for permits to hold protests next week after the voting ends Sunday.
On Saturday, the news website Znak said a resident of the Moscow region was offering 1,000 rubles ($15) to people who voted for United Russia. The publication said it called the man, who said the payment would come if the caller provided evidence of their vote through a messaging app.
The Golos movement cited reports from its observers and local news media of an array of apparent violations, including ballots being stored overnight in a cabinet with a broken door and of envelopes for storing ballot tallies appearing to have been opened and then resealed.
On the first day of voting Friday, unexpectedly long lines formed at some polling places, and independent media suggested this could show that state institutions and companies were forcing employees to vote.
But despite those lines, overall turnout appeared to be desultory. Pamfilova, the elections commission head, said about 25% of the electorate had cast ballots by 3 p.m. Saturday, about halfway through the voting.
Some voters participated, but with little sense of involvement.
“I vote every year. What is happening in the end does not depend on us, nothing depends on us," Nikolai Martemyanov, a resident of the Siberian village of Desyatove, told The Associated Press.
Media in St. Petersburg on Friday reported on suspected cases of “carousel voting,” in which voters cast ballots at several different polling stations. An AP video journalist saw the same voters, believed to be military school students, at two different polling stations; one of them said the group had gone to the wrong polling station at first.
A local Russian election commission member posted a video in which a man appeared to have tried to cast several ballots and then was confronted by a poll worker. The man in the video said he had obtained his ballots at a subway station.
Irina Titova in St. Petersburg and Yulya Alekseeva in Desyatovo contributed to this story.