Muscovites headed to the polls to elect a new city council on Sunday. There is little hope that opposition parties will make substantive gains. But, after a crackdown, resentment against the government is growing.
Protesters have taken to the streets to force authorities to allow opposition candidates to run in local elections
Across Moscow, posters of smiling politicians assured voters that the candidate pictured was the right choice to govern Russia's capital. Leaflets were distributed to explain to potential voters why.
It was a relatively muted end to one of the most contentious election campaigns in recent Russian history. In August, an estimated 50,000 people demonstrated against Moscow's decision to bar dozens of opposition candidates from standing in the election. Frustration was driven to a fever pitch when hard-line elements in the government — backed by armor-clad riot police — attempted to suppress the largely unsanctioned protests, injuring several demonstrators and arresting thousands.
Outrage boils over
During an ordinary year, elections for Moscow's city council would hardly draw attention outside the capital. But 2019 is no ordinary year.
After enjoying years of relatively unopposed rule thanks to President Vladimir Putin's domination of civic life, United Russia is struggling. Popular support for the party is fading as concerns about the stagnating economy and falling standards of living play an increasing role in the public debate.
The government's decision to raise the retirement age in 2018 helped drive public support for Putin's party to historic lows and paved the way for an unprecedented series of protests on topics ranging from trash collection to a land swap between republics to concerns about infringements on press freedoms. United Russia's political capital is so low that its candidates for Moscow's city council are running as independents, fearing that association with the party could hurt their chances.
Read more: The Kremlin fears its own people
The fractured opposition has the rare opportunity to make use of growing frustration with Russia's political system. When Moscow's city election committee refused to register opposition-back candidates on the grounds that their applications contained thousands of allegedly forged or invalid signatures of support, the opposition quickly called foul and mobilized supporters.
The resulting weeks of demonstrations and images of security forces beating peaceful demonstrators is only further fueling public discontent, Russian political consultant Abbas Gallyamov said. "The tough actions of the security forces drive the protest and guarantee a high turnout," he said. "The main stream of negative news is now provided by security officials," he added. "They're the ones providing the protests with emotion."
Alexei Navalny, perhaps the most prominent of Russia's opposition leaders, is hoping to capitalize on the discontent. Using his popular YouTube channel, he is calling on supporters to back his "smart voting" strategy and cast ballots for for the candidate with the best chances of defeating a nominee backed by United Russia in local elections and eventually at the national level. Should Navalny's plan succeed, the opposition could gain a foothold within the government.
Observers in Moscow say the government's inability to adopt a coherent policy to deal with growing opposition and public pressure show that the existing leaders may have been too slow to adapt for their own good. "The current 'explosion' in connection with the election campaign to the Mosgorduma is a classic example," the publisher and cultural historian Irina Prokhorova told DW, using the Russian name for Moscow's city council. "The people in power have failed to understand that times are changing."