Opposition candidates are crying foul at official results from Sunday's controversial mayoral elections in Sochi, Russia, the venue of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Tallies show the Kremlin's choice, Anatoly Pakhomov, bulldozing aside a field of six contenders with a Sovietesque 77 percent victory.
Pro-democracy activists, backed by some experts, insist the outcome is a classic case of former President Vladimir Putin's "managed democracy," in which a facade of multi-candidate elections veils a process of official coercion, manipulation, and outright persecution that ensures that no genuine oppositionist will ever win.
Some experts had hoped the system, which seemed to reach its peak with the almost uncontested election of Mr. Putin's successor Dmitri Medvedev last year, might be on the wane. The pro-Kremlin United Russia Party has lost recent municipal contests in Murmansk and Smolensk, and one triumphant United Russia candidate, Anton Chumachenko, last week resigned his seat on St. Petersburg's city council to protest the "cynical mockery" of democracy that produced his victory.
Putin, who is now prime minister, staked his personal reputation on winning the bid to host the 2014 Winter Games in Russia and ponied up a Kremlin pledge of more than $12 billion in funding for Olympic infrastructure in the fading Soviet-era Black Sea resort zone.
"This had nothing to do with fair and democratic elections, it was just the crowning of the authorities' candidate with a show of voting," says Sergei Obukhov, a Communist Duma deputy who spent the past month campaigning for his party's contender, Yury Dzaganiya. He insists that the 7 percent garnered by Mr. Dzagina is far below the traditional Communist performance in Sochi, and much less than the 20 percent their own polling had led them to expect. Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister and Sochi native, says he will launch a court challenge of the official results, which gave him 14 percent. Exit polls conducted by his campaign showed him winning 35 percent against Mr. Pakhomov's 46 percent, Mr. Nemtsov insists in a statement on his Website.
That's crucial, because under Russia's electoral system if no candidate wins more than 50 percent, the two front runners face each other in a second round a few weeks later. Independent observers cite a multitude of departures from fair electoral practice, beginning with the exclusion from the ballot of most of the original 23 candidates by electoral officials on "technical" grounds. Liberal businessman Alexander Lebedev – a self-described "loyal oppositionist" whom many observers say would have been a very strong contender – was expelled from the race by a Sochi court two weeks ago on the grounds that the billionaire newspaper tycoon and former Duma deputy had incorrectly filled out the paperwork registering his candidacy.
Nemtsov faced multiple hurdles, including a police raid in early April that seized all of his campaign literature and what he describes as official pressure that prevented him from renting premises or holding public meetings, and a near complete blackout in the local media.
Virtually the only media coverage Nemtsov received was a scathingly negative 20-minute documentary film about his political career – which attacked him as a "Midas-in-reverse" who turns everything he touches to crap – that was broadcast on all four local TV channels before election day.
Meanwhile, Mr. Pakhomov, acting mayor and candidate of the United Russia Party – which is led by Putin – dominated the airwaves.
"There were many violations of electoral rules," says Liliya Shibanova, executive director of Golos, a Moscow-based grassroots electoral watchdog. She points to very high levels of "early voting," which has never been more than 4 percent in a Sochi election, but which peaked at least 11 percent in the week prior to Sunday's poll.
Ms. Shibanova says her organization is also investigating extraordinarily high levels of home voting on Sunday, which she says observers were barred from monitoring.
"The use of these techniques could have influenced the results a lot," she says, particularly because overall voter turnout was a very low 39 percent.
Some experts say Pakhomov's victory shows that Putin's pull remains the decisive factor in Russian politics.
"In the final analysis, Pakhomov's victory was an expression of public support for Putin, and his margin of victory mirrors Putin's public approval ratings," says Vyacheslav Igrunov, director of the independent Institute of Humanitarian-Political Studies in Moscow.
But let's not call it "democracy," he adds.
"I don't think the violations during the Sochi campaign were any more than is usual for a Russian election. But it's difficult to call it a democratic campaign, given the total control of the authorities over the mass media" and other levers of influence, he says.