By Polina Nikolskaya
VLADIVOSTOK, Russia (Reuters) – Hundreds of Russian Communist Party supporters took to the central square of Vladivostok on Monday to protest against what they said was the rigging of a regional election in favour of a politician backed by President Vladimir Putin.
With 95 percent of votes counted on Sunday night, Kremlin-backed United Russia incumbent Andrei Tarasenko was trailing his Communist rival by around 5 percent. But on Monday, the local election commission said Tarasenko had won by just over 1 percent, an unlikely turnaround that the Communists said was evidence of rigging.
The scandal is awkward for Putin, who met Tarasenko a week ago and told him that “everything will be OK”. The comment was widely seen as a personal endorsement of Tarasenko, whom Putin appointed acting governor last year, at a time when Putin’s own ratings are under pressure from plans to raise the pension age.
A week ago in the Primorsky Region, which includes the Pacific port of Vladivostok, 6,400 km (4,000 miles) east of Moscow, Tarasenko failed to pass the 50-percent threshold for an outright win.
That, and three other reversals in elections to select regional governors, amounted to the worst showing for Kremlin-backed candidates since 2012. Though there is no immediate threat to the ruling United Russia Party’s grip on power, it suggests growing discontent over living standards.
Communist candidate Andrei Ishchenko told a crowd of hundreds of people in central Vladivostok on Monday that the vote count had been rigged, and urged supporters to protest every evening until the result was overturned.
“RESULTSREWRITTEN IN AN HOUR”
“In the space of one hour, the results were rewritten. In the space of one hour, our competitors United Russia were gifted the election and an extra 40,000 votes,” he said. He had earlier said he would go on hunger strike until the result was annulled.
The crowd, some of whom were waving red Communist Party flags with the hammer and sickle, booed United Russia and shouted for Tarasenko to resign.
Ella Pamfilova, head of the central election commission, told Ekho Moskvy radio that her officials were analysing the vote and that she was sending a special commission to investigate.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters the Kremlin was closely watching the situation and would be guided by Pamfilova.
United Russia accused the Communists of buying votes during the campaign, something the Communists deny.
Standing outside local government headquarters on Monday to protest, Viktoria, a 29-year-old businesswoman who voted for Ishchenko, said she had started celebrating his win the previous night, then woken up to a result she had not expected.
“After this vote, I feel like a nobody. Like I don’t count, someone who doesn’t have the right to vote,” she said.
Galina, a 44-year-old state employee, said she was not a supporter of the Communists, but had gone to vote for the first time in 10 years — for Ishchenko — because she wanted change.
“What’s the point of voting if everything has already been decided for us?” she said.
(This version of the story corrects spelling of Communist candidate’s name to “Ishchenko” throughout.)
(Additional reporting by Masha Tsvetkova; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Kevin Liffey)