Russians are electing regional and municipal leaders today in the first electoral test for President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to reassert control after the largest protests in more than a decade. In Russia’s first gubernatorial elections in eight years and about 5,000 other polls, contenders backed by the ruling United Russia party may suffer setbacks in at least 10 mayoral and local legislative elections, the Carnegie Moscow Center projects. Governing-party candidates are leading by double-digit margins in all five gubernatorial races, according to the Civil Society Development Fund. Putin, who handed the chairmanship of the United Russia party to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev a year ago, is struggling to reverse a slump in approval ratings that are near the lowest level since mass protests broke out in December. A crackdown has since ensued, including prosecution of opposition activists and leaders, increased fines for unsanctioned rallies and tightened controls over the Internet.
“These elections are mainly going calmly and predictably and people like stability,” Konstantin Kostin head of the Civil Society Development Fund and a Kremlin adviser, said in an Oct. 12 interview. “People want changes to make life better, but stability is their main motive.” The unrest is pushing Putin’s allies into a balancing act where a heavy-handed show of strength risks sparking new protests and rallying the opposition. Putin, who began his third presidential term in May, abolished direct elections of governors in 2004 and agreed to restore them last year after tens of thousands took to the streets to protest voting fraud.