MOSCOW (AFP) - Russia's beleaguered opposition on Monday (Sept 11) claimed rare gains at municipal council elections in Moscow, though the Kremlin-backed ruling party still dominated voting nationwide.
Russia held some 6,000 polls on Sunday to choose 16 regional governors and local representatives across the country, the last major vote ahead of a presidential election in March next year that President Vladimir Putin is expected to contest and win.
Voter turnout rates in the local polls were low, in particular in Moscow, where the electoral commission said less than 15 per cent of eligible voters had cast ballots.
In the sprawling Russian capital, opposition candidates appeared on course to pick up some 15 per cent of council seats despite allegations the authorities deliberately failed to publicise the vote in a bid to keep the opponents' tally low.
Ex-opposition lawmaker Dmitry Gudkov, who helped push a loose grassroots grouping of independents and activists, said that results showed over 200 of their candidates had won across the city, a major improvement on the last time round.
"The electorate voted for change, for new faces. There is a big demand for this," he said.
Despite the modest gains, however, election officials said the ruling United Russia party looked set to take over 75 per cent of seats in Moscow and scored overwhelming victories in other regions around the country.
Kremlin-backed candidates appeared to have won all of the governor races in the 16 regions up for grabs.
The crushing wins for the Kremlin's candidates point towards the most likely outcome of next year's presidential vote.
Mr Putin - with resounding domestic popularity - has not yet confirmed that he will seek re-election, but is widely expected to do so and then cruise to a fourth term that would see him rule to 2026.
But the Kremlin strongman could face some discontent among the urban middle class given Russia's struggling economy and stand-off with the West.
Also the authorities could struggle to boost voter participation at the election, with the result already seen as a foregone conclusion.