President-elect Vladimir Putin suffered a tough political blow Monday after seeing his party’s candidate trounced in a mayoral race that became the focus of Russia’s nascent protest movement.
Official results from the central city of Yaroslavl showed ruling United Russia party candidate Yakov Yakushev picking up just 27.8 percent of the vote in a runoff Sunday against local independent rival Yevgeny Urlashov.
Urlashov claimed 68.7 percent of the vote after seeing both the Communist Party and the liberal opposition rally around his candidacy in a sign of the frustration in poorer regions with Moscow-backed politicians.
“I am glad that the voters showed their courage and reason. They are tired and they want change,” the winner told Moscow Echo radio.
The defeat for the party that converged around Putin during his first two terms as president in 2000-2008 was especially painful because Yakushev had won the endorsements of both the local governor and the outgoing mayor.
Urlashov complained of a dirty campaign being waged against him by United Russia that included a raid on his campaign headquarters by the authorities only two days ahead of the vote.
The protest movement responded by sending more than 1,000 of its monitors to Yaroslavl after flooding Moscow polling stations with observers at the March 4 presidential elections.
The anti-Putin movement claimed Moscow as its biggest success when the capital became the only region of Russia in which the ex-KGB spy failed to pick up 50 percent of the vote.
Putin still secured a crushing win with nearly 64 percent of the national vote — a sign that voter anger at the corruption and political mismanagement of the ruling elite has left Putin himself largely untouched.
The scale of his victory also took away much of the momentum from the record protests that emerged in response to fraud-tainted December parliamentary polls narrowly won by United Russia.
But the street movement’s leaders said Putin would have fared much worse had his election been watched as closely across the nation as it had been in Moscow.
They have since vowed to changed their tactics and make election monitoring one of their focal points as they seek to reverse more than a decade of the Kremlin’s stifling domination over politics.
“Urlashov’s victory is our victory,” the unregistered Solidarity movement of former cabinet minister Boris Nemtsov and retired chess king Garry Kasparov wrote on Twitter.
The respected election monitor Golos — a private group that has been forced out of its Moscow offices since reporting thousands of violations in December — said the Yarovlavl vote “was conducted in accordance with the law.”
The protest movement still intends to stage one last grand event on the eve of Putin’s May 7 inauguration as president for a newly extended six-year term that will involve a switch — current President Dmitry Medvedev will take up his post of prime minster.
This continuity has particularly enraged opposition leaders who are pressing the Kremlin for new political rules.
Authorities have promised to make party registration easier for future elections. Medvedev also intends to meet some opposition leaders for a second time on Tuesday to discuss other reforms.
But Putin himself has refused to meet protest leaders.
Some analysts called the weekend vote an important boost to the opposition’s morale.
“This is an especially important result considering the downbeat mood the opposition was in after the elections,” said Carnegie Moscow Centre analyst Nikolai Petrov.