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Kremlin loses regional votes amid anger over pension reform

A recent series of regional elections in Russia has been marked by protests against a pensions reform backed by President Vladimir Putin
A recent series of regional elections in Russia has been marked by protests against a pensions reform backed by President Vladimir Putin A recent series of regional elections in Russia has been marked by protests against a pensions reform backed by President Vladimir Putin Sputnik/AFP/File
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Moscow (AFP)

Russia's ruling party suffered two rare defeats in regional elections this weekend as its candidates lost to nationalists amid widespread discontent over a pension reform backed by President Vladimir Putin.

A second round of governorship elections was held in two key regions Sunday, after support for the pro-Kremlin United Russia party saw its strongest decline in a decade during the first round on September 9.

Vladimir Sipyagin, of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), won 57 percent of the vote in the Vladimir region, 190 kilometres (120 miles) northeast of Moscow.

He defeated the incumbent United Russia governor Svetlana Orlova, who obtained 37.5 percent of the vote, results showed on Monday.

United Russia also lost to nationalists in the far eastern Khabarovsk region, where LDPR candidate Sergei Furgal won nearly 70 percent of the vote against current governor Vyacheslav Shport.

Sunday's runoff votes were held after the United Russia candidates failed to win at least 50 percent of the vote in the first round.

"There is, of course, an element of surprise," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said of the results in Vladimir and Khabarovsk regions.

But they proved the votes were "free, honest and just", he added.

This month the Kremlin also suffered election setbacks in the far eastern region of Primorsky Krai and the southern Siberia region of Khakhasia, where ruling party candidates failed to win in the first round.

Last week, the result of the second-round runoff in Primorsky Krai was cancelled following protests over vote-rigging in favour of a United Russia candidate backed by Putin.

A candidate of the Communist Party who contested that vote accused the authorities of "stealing" his victory. A re-run is expected in three months.

Khakasia has yet to hold a runoff vote.

- Protest votes -

Observers and political players called the result of the votes in those regions a form of protest voting.

"During the gubernatorial elections in the Khabarovsk and Vladimir regions yesterday, citizens passed a motion of no confidence against United Russia and sacked the authorities they had gotten sick of!" wrote Ksenia Sobchak, a Russian TV celebrity turned liberal politician.

The election blows came amid widespread discontent over a Kremlin-backed plan to raise the retirement age, which has triggered street protests and led to a major drop in Putin's approval ratings.

Voters across Russia are also angry over rising poverty, partly due to Western sanctions.

In a rare show of unity, political parties and movements of all hues have opposed the government's pension reform.

The LDPR and the Communist Party are tolerated by the Kremlin and sit in the lower house of parliament. While they support the Kremlin's foreign policy, they occasionally challenge its stance on domestic issues.

Putin's top critic, 42-year-old opposition politician Alexei Navalny, also organised protests against the reform.

On Monday, he was released from jail after serving a 30-day sentence for an unauthorised protest but was immediately detained again.

Navalny was being held again "because the authorities are now weaker than ever", his associate Lyubov Sobol wrote on Twitter.

"The overwhelming majority of people are against raising the retirement age and United Russia was defeated in gubernatorial elections in key regions," she added.

"They are scared, panicking and taking revenge."

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