These days, elections in Russia are rarely tense or surprising, with Vladimir Putin's United Russia usually keeping well ahead of its far left, nationalist, or liberal rivals. Nevertheless, the country did witness several surprises after Sunday's vote to elect the governor of the eastern Primorsky Region, and the consequences might be far-reaching.
Cheating at the finish line?
Surprise number one: For once, the opposition had a pretty good chance of victory. The 37-year-old Andrei Ishchenko, a candidate for the Communist Party, seemed set to claim the key seat from the Kremlin-backed Andrei Tarasenko on Sunday evening. With 95 percent of ballots counted, Ishchenko was around six points ahead. The lead was even more jarring considering that President Putin visited the region just days ago and showed support for the 55-year-old Tarasenko, who represents United Russia.
Surprise number two: The incumbent Tarasenko had pulled ahead by Monday morning, allegedly claiming 49.55 percent of the vote to 48.06 for the Communist Ishchenko. The overnight upset triggered accusations of vote-rigging from Ishchenko's camp. Some of his supporters took to the streets.
Ishchenko claims he was robbed of tens of thousands of votes due to ballot stuffing in four different locations, including a part of Vladivostok. He also called on his supporters to stage daily protests and announced he was going on a hunger strike. In turn, his opponent, Tarasenko, lobbed accusations of his own, claiming that the Communist Party had been buying votes.
The independent election watchdog Golos (Vote) warned that if the results really were "distorted" it would be an instance of "illegal claiming and holding on to power."
Moscow's gate to China and North Korea
Authorities in Moscow reacted with surprise and attempted to defuse the situation. Putin's spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, appeared tight-lipped and pointed to the Central Electoral Commission. The officials there said they would only confirm the result after looking into all of the complaints, and that a delegation from Moscow is to be deployed to Vladivostok.
Ishchenko soon gave up on his hunger strike after seeing "hints of cooperation" from the Moscow-based electoral officials. He also walked back on the proposal to set up a protester camp, possibly to avoid comparison with the 2014 Maidan uprising in Kyiv. Such a camp could provoke the police, he said.
The eastern port city and the entire Primorsky Region hold massive strategic significance for Russia. Although sparsely populated, the area is roughly half the size of Germany, borders China and North Korea and boasts a long coastline on the Sea of Japan. With the European Union and the United States imposing sanctions on Russia, links with Asia have grown more important for Moscow and the government has been investing in the region.
A dilemma for the Kremlin
Until recently, the Kremlin had the power to directly name regional governors. This system was established in 2004, but revoked after street protests in 2012 in Moscow. The government also currently faces Communist-led protests over deeply unpopular pension reform efforts.
"The stakes are very high," Moscow-based Russian political expert Nikolay Petrov told DW, saying that voters in Primorsky Region demonstrated their displeasure by voting against the Kremlin-backed candidate.
The dispute presents a dilemma for the Kremlin. A victory for opposition candidate Ishchenko in such an important region could be seen as a sign of the weakness of Putin's administration. However, backing Governor Tarasenko could spark more protests, and tensions in Russia are already high due to the contentious pension reform issue. Observers like political scientist Ivan Preobrazhensky believe that voters in Primorsky Region are ready to withdraw their support for Putin.
"This is the beginning of a new political reality," Preobrazhensky told DW. The balance of power has shifted not just between the central government and the regions, he explained, but also between the voters and the ruling caste.