Tourists walk by The Kremlin in Moscow, Russia. (Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg)

Putin's Opponents Claim Moscow Win as Kremlin Sweeps Regions

(Bloomberg) -- Russia’s ruling party swept gubernatorial elections Sunday, but the beleaguered opposition claimed a rare breakthrough in voting for district councils in Moscow after overcoming divisions.

A pro-democracy bloc got about 13 percent of the vote and won control of councils in several districts of the Russian capital. While the bodies have limited power, they’d been targeted by Kremlin opponents who’ve been largely blocked from participating in higher-profile races. 

“This is an unbelievable success,” the bloc’s campaign manager, Maxim Katz, told Echo Moskvy radio Monday.

The party allied with President Vladimir Putin, who is expected to run for a fourth term next March, maintained its dominance at a national level. In 16 regions where governors were standing for election, United Russia’s candidates all won in the first round, state news service Tass reported. The ballots took place Sunday in 82 of 85 regions.

Ahead of the presidential vote and elections for Moscow mayor next year, the opposition saw the Moscow municipal polls as a chance to break the Kremlin’s political monopoly, if only on a local level. While opposition leader Alexey Navalny almost forced a run-off vote against a Putin ally in the last Moscow mayoral elections in 2013, he’s almost certain to be barred from running for president because of a fraud conviction he says is politically motivated.

‘Impossible to Ignore’

“People want change and it’s impossible to ignore this,” said Ilya Yashin, a longtime anti-Kremlin activist, who led an opposition takeover of the 10-member council in the district where he ran. The bodies have authority over largely local issues, but strong representation can help parties field candidates for mayor.

The opposition bloc fielded about 1,000 contenders for 1,502 municipal seats in Moscow, hoping to capitalize on discontent that fueled street protests against the Kremlin earlier this year. At around 15 percent, turnout was unusually low as the voting got little publicity and many Muscovites spent the day at lavish anniversary festivities put on by City Hall. The group did especially well in the more prosperous city center.

While the Kremlin will be reassured by the ruling party’s performance at a national level, “Russia is a country in which power is decided less in elections and more in the capital, so it will take note of the protest mood in Moscow,” Mikhail Vinogradov, head of the St. Petersburg Politics Foundation, said by phone.

President Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said it was “fantastic” that the opposition won some seats in Moscow because it proved there’s political competition in Russia. At the same time, the results showed support for the policies of the president and United Russia, Peskov told reporters on a conference call Monday.