* Ruling party seen winning despite falling ratings
* A test of Putin’s power in 11 time zones.
* At stake is the supermajority of United Russia
* Critic Navalny yells foul, pushes tactical vote
By Tom Balmforth
MOSCOW, Sept 17 (Reuters) – Russia will go to the polls on Friday to elect a new parliament in a three-day vote that the ruling United Russia party is expected to win despite falling audience ratings following the increased crackdown. against Kremlin critics in years. .
The vote is proof of President Vladimir Putin’s grip on power in 11 time zones, from the Pacific Ocean to the Baltic Sea, as the Kremlin faces unrest at home over low living standards and dire ties to the West.
At stake is United Russia’s supermajority in the 450-seat State Duma, which last year helped Putin loosen through constitutional reforms that allow him to run for office again and potentially stay in power until 2036.
The vote runs until Sunday night and is seen as a mock 2024 presidential election, a very sensitive time for the Kremlin should it decide to embark on a political transition to a new figurehead.
Putin, a former KGB officer who will turn 69 next month, has not said whether he will seek re-election when his current term ends in 2024. He has served as president or prime minister since 1999.
The fiercest national critic of the Kremlin leader Alexei Navalny, the jailed anti-corruption activist, hopes that a tactical voting campaign led by his team in exile could overshadow United Russia and undermine its attempt to secure a sizable new majority.
The 45-year-old former lawyer whose movement was banned as an extremist this summer was jailed in March in a case he called fabricated after recovering from Soviet-style nerve agent poisoning.
His allies, who accuse the Kremlin of widespread repression, have no chance of gaining even a foothold in royal politics after they were barred from running for office due to their association with the Navalny network.
The Kremlin denies any politically driven crackdown and says people are prosecuted for breaking the law.
The Communist party led by 77-year-old parliament veteran Gennady Zyuganov is seen as the ruling party’s strongest rival in the vote, followed by the LDPR party led by 75-year-old nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.
Both parties, like the Fair Russia party, back Putin on many key policy issues.
Navalny’s allies view the elections as a sham and have told their supporters to vote for the candidates they believe have the best chance of defeating United Russia in their respective districts. Many of those politicians are communists.
Both Putin’s and United Russia’s ratings have been under pressure from years of falling or stagnant wages, compounded by frustrations over the pandemic and rising inflation.
In the run-up to the vote, Putin approved one-time payments or salary increases to police officers, soldiers and retirees, measures that are seen as aimed at propping up the United Russia base.
State opinion polls show that the popularity of the Communist Party has risen in recent months, while United Russia’s rating fell last month to its lowest level since 2006, although it remained the most popular party.
Voting takes place in conjunction with elections for regional governors and local legislatures. It is spread over three days as a COVID-19 precaution, a move that critics say means monitoring efforts to stop voter fraud are becoming more widespread.
Elections in Moscow and in several regions will see the widespread use of electronic voting for the first time, an innovation that critics fear is not transparent and open to abuse.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe will not send vote watchers for the first time in Russia since the 1993 elections.
Critics of the Kremlin have accused the authorities of using dirty tricks to sabotage their campaigns. Boris Vishnevsky, who is running in the local elections in St. Petersburg, said that two “spoofing” candidates with the same names as him and even the same facial hair on their official portraits were running against him.
It is the first time that United Russia has campaigned for votes in eastern Ukraine held by Moscow-backed separatists, where Russia has handed over 600,000 Russian passports, enraging Ukraine. (Reporting to Tom Balmforth; edited by Andrew Heavens)