Voters across Russia are casting their ballots in dozens of local elections that are seen as an enormous test for the ruling pro-Kremlin United Russia party.

Around 160,000 candidates are vying for seats in local parliaments. Governors are also being elected in many regions. The election comes weeks after the suspected poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny with Novichok. His team allege this was done on the orders of President Putin – the Kremlin denies any involvement. Mr. Navalny had been backing key challengers to United Russia, describing it as the “party of crooks and thieves”.

His team has been urging Russians to vote tactically to channel support towards candidates best placed to defeat United Russia. In some places, these are people affiliated with Mr Navalny himself, while in other regions they’re communist or nationalist challengers. Mr Navalny’s camp believes this campaign could be why he was attacked, the BBC’s Sarah Rainsford in Moscow says.

She adds that United Russia has become increasingly unpopular, related to controversial pension reform, falling incomes – and corruption. Russia’s electoral commission allowed early voting on 11-12 September due to the coronavirus outbreak. But Sunday is the main day for tens of millions voters across 11 time zones, with over 56,000 polling stations prepared.

These are the first elections since controversial constitutional reforms were approved in a July referendum allowing Mr Putin to remain in power until 2036. They are also seen as a rehearsal for elections to the national parliament next year.

Last year, the capital witnessed mass protests, following the exclusion of many opposition candidates from a local election. The administration was then accused of a heavy-handed response to the rallies, which saw more than 1,000 people arrested receive sentences of up to four years in prison.

The far-eastern city of Khabarovsk has been the scene of regular anti-Putin rallies since July, after the arrest of a popular governor fuelled resentment against Moscow’s rule.

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