Sochi Election Results Called into Question

The Black Sea resort town of Sochi held mayoral elections on Sunday, in a race widely seen as the most exciting political event of the Spring in Russia.  Despite official results that indicate a landslide victory for the pro-Kremlin candidate, observers believe the numbers may have been largely padded and falsified.

Official figures from the local electoral commission say that Anatoly Pakhomov, of the United Russia party, took a staggering 76.86 percent of the vote.  Boris Nemtsov, an opposition candidate and member of the Solidarity movement, is listed as trailing with 13.6 percent of the vote.  Yury Dzaganiya, of the Communist party, had 6.75 percent.  The total turnout for the election was roughly 40 percent of registered voters.

Exit polls conducted by Nemtsov’s staff call the numbers into question.  Ilya Yashin, Nemtsov’s chief campaign officer, wrote in his LiveJournal blog that polling station surveys indicated around 46 percent of voters had chosen Pakhomov.  Around 35 percent of respondents said they had voted for Nemtsov.

Such a result would indicate the need for a run-off election between Nemtsov and Pakhomov.

Nemtsov said he is planning to dispute the results in court, citing violations and vote-rigging.  Previously, he asserted that more than 30 percent of ballots may have been falsified.  “Putin’s Russia has yet to see something of the sort,” Nemtsov said.

The candidate marked serious violations in the procedure of absentee voting.  In one scheme described by monitors, voters were allegedly forced to vote by absentee ballot at their workplaces, and compelled to vote for pro-Kremlin candidate Anatoly Pakhomov under threat of losing their jobs.  Each ballot was placed in an envelope with the worker’s name so that bosses could keep track of how each employee voted.

According to Olga Shorina, Nemtsov’s press-secretary, electoral monitors were also blocked from polling stations, and barred from taking photographs and videos.  In one example, Keith Gessen, an American journalist with the New Yorker Magazine, was briefly detained by police outside a polling place where ballot stuffing had allegedly taken place.

The Russian Communist Party also complained of violations and irregularities, both in absentee voting and during the regular vote.  In an interview with the online newspaper, Yevgeny Rasshchepkin, a local party leader, named some instances:  Several people who arrived to vote noticed that a ballot had already been cast in their name;  a number of polling stations opened late.

Earlier in the race, many of the candidates complained of broad censorship in local media, which avoided discussion of the election and showed little aside from Pakhomov, the acting mayor.

According to electoral law, the inauguration of a new mayor must take place no later than seven days after the official decision from the electoral commission.