Russia held its regional elections on Sept. 10 for 17 governor positions and for a list of municipal legislative seats. The elections were an important indicator of support for the Kremlin, after mass protests against the Russian government broke out in June. With a stagnant economy, atrophying political apparatus and generational changes, Moscow has been losing grip of its political hold.
Heading into the elections, the Kremlin faced serious challenges in many of the races — particularly a handful of gubernatorial elections — from organized opposition groups and politicians. The Kremlin focused heavily on these races, blocking challengers with bribery, by intimidation and with the use of the controversial "municipal filter" mechanism, which requires a candidate to secure five to 10 percent of local lawmakers' signatures before they can run. The anti-opposition campaign was successful, and the government's United Russia and its aligned loyalists dominated the gubernatorial elections.
In contrast, the Kremlin received jarring results from the municipal legislature races. Opposition and independent candidates secured wins in many of Russia's cities. The most striking of these were the Moscow regional district elections, in which opposition figures won a majority in 14 of the districts, including the Gagarinsky district — where Russian President Vladimir Putin himself voted — and the Tverskaya district, an ultra-wealthy neighborhood next to the Kremlin. Overall, in the Moscow region, opposition or independent candidates won 23 percent of the seats— an unprecedented high.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Kremlin welcomed non-United Russia candidates, claiming the elections where they lost seats were evidence of pluralism and a fair vote. But allegations of voter manipulation were still widespread. A key Kremlin loyalist was caught on camera handing out bribes and was subsequently sacked by Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin. Regardless of how fair the elections were or weren't, the results signal that the Kremlin is having more difficulty blatantly rigging the vote.
The progress toward unity achieved by the United Democrats is perhaps the most notable outcome of the elections. Driven by the Yobloko "Apple" party, the United Democrats bring together liberal democratic parties and many seasoned politicians who battled Putin in his early years but who have notoriously squabbled over small details in the past
The Kremlin has most recently been worried about the resurrection of the Communist Party and the rise of opposition heavyweight Alexei Navalny, but now it must also worry about the United Democrats. The ability of these liberal democrats to cooperate and coordinate enough to secure these wins is a troubling sign for the Kremlin, which has sought to divide the various opposition groups from uniting into a single force.
While the municipal gains may look like a minor win, they could presage bigger wins to come. As more non-Kremlin sanctioned representatives enter the regional and municipal legislatures, it will be easier for opposition candidates to secure the signatures needed to surpass the municipal filter.
Opposition gains are a troubling sign for the Kremlin, which is entering decisive elections in 2018 as President Vladimir Putin seeks his fourth re-election. Putin is almost assured an overwhelming victory, but his ability to hold onto his previous mandates are in question. And, as the Moscow mayoral race moves to the forefront, Putin loyalist Sobyanin will see challenges coming from the growing opposition figures on both the right and left.