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Russia's strangest election all year The Communist candidate was winning Primorsky Krai's gubernatorial race — until the last minute

Meduza
Yuri Smityuk / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

“Everything will be fine.”

On September 16, the Primorsky Krai held a runoff gubernatorial election between acting Governor Andrey Tarasenko of United Russia and challenger Andrey Ishchenko of the Communist Party. In the first round on September 9, the incumbent won 46.6 percent of the vote against Ishchenko’s 24.6 percent. Before the runoff election, Tarasenko met publicly with Vladimir Putin, and the president assured him that “everything would be fine” with the second round of voting.

A few last-minute tweaks.

With 95 percent of the region’s voting precincts reporting, however, Ishchenko was winning the race with almost 6 percent more votes than Tarasenko: 51.6 percent to 45.8 percent. After another 2.87 percent of the precincts reported their results, Ishchenko remained ahead, but his lead dropped to just 3.3 percent. Afterwards, the preliminary tally published on the Central Election Commission’s website suddenly didn’t update for at least an hour.

With 99 percent of the votes counted, the Communist challenger had lost the race. Once 99.03 percent of voting precincts reported their results, Tarasenko surged ahead, putting him up 49.02 percent against Ishchenko’s 48.56 percent. Once 99.1 percent of precincts had reported their results, Tarasenko’s lead grew to a now insurmountable 1.49 percent. The following graph captures the dramatic last-minute reversal.

No fair.

The Communist Party says the election results were falsified. According to Ishchenko, vote tallies were altered in Artem, Ussuriysk, Nakhodka, and Vladivostok’s Sovetsky District. In Ussuriysk, there were allegedly irregularities in at least five precincts, each of which added up to 1,200 votes for Tarasenko, according to Pavel Ashukhmin, a territorial election commission member from the Communist Party.

At Vladivostok’s Sovetsky District election commission, according to Communist Party representatives, officials tried to eject observers from the room where they were logging vote tallies in the state automated system. When that didn’t work, emergency workers arrived and evacuated the building, claiming that smoke had been reported. An inspection of the premises, however, turned up no traces of a fire.

Tarasenko, meanwhile, has accused the Communist Party of buying votes. The party supposedly spent roughly 40 million rubles ($587,200) on at least 24,000 votes, says the incumbent’s campaign. Observers from the Communist Party also allegedly interfered with the work of election commissions. “They didn’t let the commissions work normally,” a campaign representative told Interfax. “It was only when they got tired, when the commissions started working normally, that it turned out that a lot of the ballots they had been marked invalid were in fact okay, and that’s why there was such a breakaway by the morning.”

Here's how the incumbent explains it.

A spokesperson for the Primorsky Krai’s Central Election Commission attributes the last-minute change to the particulars of how voter precinct data was logged. Commission supervisor Evgeny Shevchenko says vote tallies were being uploaded “ahead of schedule,” which led to the delay in updates later on. The final results came in from more remote areas, in particular the city of Arsenyev (population 52,470), where Tarasenko won.

Andrey Ishchenko meets with supporters at a protest outside the Primorsky Krai's administrative building in Vladivostok on September 17.
Andrey Ishchenko meets with supporters at a protest outside the Primorsky Krai's administrative building in Vladivostok on September 17.
Anton Novgorodov

Ishchenko has promised to organize protests against the election results, and he also announced a hunger strike. On Facebook, he said the Communist Party is contesting the results in Artem, Ussuriysk, Nakhodka, and Vladivostok’s Sovetsky District. On the morning of September 17, Ishchenko and several Communist Party activists assembled in Vladivostok’s Central Square, outside the Primorsky Krai's administrative building, which was guarded by the police. After initially calling for a tent encampment in the square, Ishchenko later told supporters that “it would be enough” to gather there everyday from “six in the morning until dusk,” until the runoff results are overturned. (Gennady Zyuganov apparently talked him out of the idea of staging a “permanent protest.”)

Asked what he thinks Vladimir Putin will make of the election results, Ishchenko told Meduza that he expects the president will be “upset.” “When the federal TV networks show that Ishchenko was winning with 95 percent of the votes in, and then this changed dramatically, and 40,000 [votes for Tarasenko] were added from somewhere, well I hope Mr. Putin will make the right decision, and the preliminary voting results will be corrected and the real vote tallies will be uploaded to the automated system.”

Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov is calling the election results a “criminal outrage,” and has demanded that President Putin convene a committee to review potential voter fraud in the race. Zyuganov also promised nationwide protests on September 22, directly accusing Primorsky Krai’s election officials of falsifying votes “all through the night.” On September 17, the Communist Party filed its first lawsuits against election results in the Ussuriysk City Court.

Teasing recognition

Russian Central Election Commissioner Ella Pamfilova has teased the possibility that her agency might not recognize the Primorsky Krai’s results. Speaking on September 17, Pamfilova said the federal commission won’t approve the final vote tally until it’s reviewed all reported violations. She’s also appealed to both the Tarasenko and Ishchenko campaigns, urging them to share any information about potential irregularities. At the same time, Pamfilova said Sunday’s race was the product of a “heated, competitive battle” that demonstrates the “positive effects” of her agency’s efforts to increase transparency in Russian elections.

Story by Olga Korelina and Taisya Bekbulatova, translation by Kevin Rothrock