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The United Russia party keeps losing mayoral elections. Experts see this as a trend indicating the ruling party’s political influence has been dwindling, and protest sentiment, rising. After the election loss in the city of Togliatti, an automotive industry center in the middle reaches of the Volga River, the ruling party has got a powerful punch in Yaroslavl, 250 kilometers northeast of Moscow, where in the April 1 runoff the oppositional candidate attained a comfortable victory over United Russia’s man.
Yevgeny Urlashov, proposed by the leading oppositional parties, got ahead of his rival – United Russia’s candidate Yakov Yakushev – by nearly 40% of the votes. He got 69.65%, and Yakushev, 27.78%. Urlashov enjoyed the backing of the systemic and non-systemic Opposition – the Communist Party, A Just Russia, Yabloko, the Patriots of Russia, and former presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov. The region’s governor and the incumbent mayor of Yaroslavl had called upon the electorate to vote for Yakushev.
Analysts say that this purely local election drew the observers’ attention due to the row, which erupted after the attempt to bar Urlashov, the winner of the first round, from the runoff. On the voting day more than one thousand observers from various parties and movements crowded the polling stations. The leaders of both systemic and non-systemic opposition went to the region.
The observers described the election as fair and transparent. The executive director of the association Golos, Grigory Melkonyants, believes the reason for this is the city enjoys close attention from a great number of observers and journalists. The Golos association’s expert, Andrei Buzin, who was present at one of Yaroslavl’s territorial election commissions during the counting of votes, has told Kommersant that “the outgoing mayor left the city at the moment of voting and issued no instructions to the commissions, which did an amazingly honest job.”
What makes Urlashov’s victory so significant is it materialized despite the local administrative resource, which was used to capacity. The current mayor, Viktor Volonchunas, who had led the city for more than 20 years, did not participate in the election, and two weeks before the voting he appointed the ruling party’s favorite, Yakushev, his first deputy in charge of social and economic affairs and went on holiday at once.
Naturally, United Russia was unhappy about the election returns. The people of Yaroslavl will regret they elected the oppositional candidate as their mayor, State Duma deputy speaker, secretary of the United Russia General Council’s presidium, Sergei Neverov said on Monday. “After sometime those people who carelessly cast their ballots in elections come to understand what it really means to vote for an unprepared candidate,” he said.
However, the ruling party has recognized that it will have to put up with this fact of life and cooperate with the winner. “We expect that Mayor Urlashov will be actively addressing the city’s problems, and I do hope that we and other political forces will support him,” said the secretary of the United Russia General Council’s presidium, Sergei Zheleznyak.
The Opposition is celebrating. “The victory in Yaroslavl means that United Russia can be struggled with and victories attained. I believe that at this particular election the authorities were cautious enough not to exert strong administrative pressures to avoid a nation-wide scandal,” said Yabloko’s leader Sergei Mitrokhin. “The regions are joining the active political process,” said a former presidential candidate, Mikhail Prokhorov. “Civil society exists not just within the Garden Ring road surrounding the center of Moscow. It has woken up everywhere and it has begun to act. There are ever more centers of political activity. Large cities are passing the relay baton further on.”
The Yaroslavl affair is not the sole setback suffered by the ruling party in the local elections. In Togliatti, the March 18 mayoral election led to the victory of Sergei Andreyev, leader of the public movement December, oppositional to the city authorities, which in the 2009 election was the runner-up in the city Duma election. Andreyev in the second round comfortably outdid United Russia’s candidate.
In Astrakhan, the ruling party’s candidate Mikhail Stolyarov officially won the March 4 election in Astrakhan to have collected 60 percent of the votes. His rival, A Just Russia member Oleg Shein, got 30 percent. However, Shein argues that the election returns have been rigged. In the first round he got a plurality of votes. After the official results were announced, he went on hunger-strike to demand the cancellation of results. Six other protesters immediately joined in. Now, there are twenty of them.
Experts say the ongoing events are a result of fundamental shifts in the state of the public mind. Nikolai Petrov, of the Moscow Carnegie Center, has told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that before “any winner was always promptly incorporated into the ruling party and United Russia even celebrated such victories as its own.” “Now the trend is going to be different. Urlashov has already said that he would not join United Russia. What makes Yaroslavl so remarkable is it saw an expansion of the model of protest voting. This is an indication that the slight growth in United Russia’s rating lately was virtual, not real.” The Kremlin can no longer afford to back United Russia, and it is far more cautious, fearing a popular outcry. “Now one can hope that the election in Yaroslavl will serve as a precedent, and the case of the hunger-striking opposition in Astrakhan will be resolved in people’s favor,” says Petrov.
The head of the Political Information Center, Alexei Mukhin, believes that United Russia was in dire need of fundamental rebranding, but that did not happen “by virtue of the inertia of its leaders’ political mentality.” “In Yaroslavl the Opposition has proved that it can unite and put forward clear demands.”
Political scientist Alexander Kynev is quoted by the daily Novyie Izvestia as saying the electoral potential of United Russia has been practically exhausted. “The ruling party is in an electoral impasse. It should revise its strategy in the radical way. There must be cooperation with the systemic opposition, with the non-systemic opposition and with civil society. Also it should drop its bellicose rhetoric. If United Russia fails to do that, its rating will continue to roll downhill.”
MOSCOW, April 3