The Kremlin has suffered a third weekend of election shocks, with its soldiers unexpectedly losing two gubernatorial races to scarcely credible “opposition” candidates.

In both Khabarovsk Krai, in the Russian Far East, and Vladimir Oblast, just east of Moscow, handpicked Kremlin candidates lost second-round run-offs to members of Russia’s Liberal Democratic Party – but despite its name, the party is a decidedly undemocratic, nationalistic party, reportedly linked to the mafia. 

In Khabarovsk, the vote difference was a massive ratio of 3:1, with Sergei Furgal polling 67.57 per cent against incumbent Vyacheslav Shport’s 27.97 per cent. In Vladimir Oblast, Vladimir Sipyagin beat loyalist Svetlana Orlova by a smaller margin – 57 per cent to 37.46 per cent. 

But in both cases, few had even predicted a second-round. Fewer still that second-round results would tilt so overwhelming against the ruling-party candidate. On early inspection, it appears the opposition candidates benefited from a surge of tactical voting. Mr Furgal registered 2.5 times the number of votes he received in the first round. Mr Sipyagin, just under. On both occasions, the incumbents’ vote stayed flat. 

The results followed a similar story last week when the gubernatorial election in far-east Primorsky Krai was apparently won by a Communist challenger, Andrei Ishchenko. But the victory was snatched at the last, probably by wide-scale election fraud. Mr Ishchenko, incensed, announced a hunger strike the following morning – only to call it off by tea-time following a call from his loyalist leader. 

Moscow’s elections chief Ella Pamfilova eventually ruled that election invalid. But she was largely ridiculed for her insistence that the complaints demonstrated fair and competitive elections.  

Speaking with journalists on Monday, spokesman Dmitry Peskov admitted the Kremlin has been taken aback by the nature of the voting. Less convincingly, he insisted his boss was only interested in seeing an honest and competitive vote. Rigorous analysis was for another day, he insisted. 

The Kremlin will not have missed the significance of the votes. 

With one exception in 2015, they are the first reverses for the ruling party since direct governor elections returned in 2012. They come at a time that competitive, opposition politics have been eliminated from the country. President Vladimir Putin’s only obvious challenger, Alexei Navalny, left prison on Monday following 30 days of detention, only to be arrested immediately after his release.

The pension reform changed everything. The message people are giving Putin is simple: either he returns to the old social contract where he protected ordinary people like them. Or they will react 

Valery Solovei, a professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations 

Those “opposition” parties allowed to compete in Russia’s election system usually play a specific role. The deal is they offer candidates too outrageous or toxic to ordinary voters. Most of the time that has worked. 

This year, however, something changed. 

Against the backdrop of the government’s highly unpopular pension reform, voters have looked to give the ruling party a bloody nose wherever they can. And they have voted in masses for the candidate who has the most chance of defeating the party candidate –even if that means voting for the Liberal Democrat Party or no-less reviled Communists.

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Both the leadership of the LDPR and Communist Party of Russia are loyal to the Kremlin. As such it is unlikely that any of the new governors will make life difficult for the Kremlin. 

Mikhail Vinogradov, chairman of the St. Petersburg Politics Fund, said the results issued a challenge for the Kremlin and propaganda. 

“The problem is that state propaganda accentuates not so much the positive of government candidates, as much as a thesis that the opposition is worse and weaker,” he says. “That logic is now broken. People are voting tactically. So what can the government do?“

The challenge is made more difficult by a more general protest sentiment returning, says Valery Solovei, a professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. For a while, anger was directed mostly against the ruling party. Now the anger extends to the man at the very top. 

“The pension reform changed everything. The message people are giving Putin is simple: either he returns to the old social contract where he protected ordinary people like them. Or they will react.”

The elections were about more than the victory of LDPR candidates, he says. They described something far deeper – the “moral and psychological condition” of the nation. 

“This is about massive consciousness. Yes, this vote is a protest vote against United Russia. But it’s also a signal for the president. These were his candidates. The Kremlin doesn’t quite understand this yet. It will need to.” 

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