By Polina Nikolskaya
VLADIVOSTOK, Russia (Reuters) – Hundreds of Russian Communist Party supporters took to the central square of Vladivostok on Monday to protest against what they said was the brazen rigging of a regional election in favor of a politician backed by President Vladimir Putin.
With just under 99 percent of votes counted on Sunday night, Kremlin-backed incumbent Andrei Tarasenko was trailing his Communist rival by over 2 percentage points.
But on Monday, the election commission said Tarasenko had won by just over 1 percentage point, with results showing he had received almost every one of the almost 20,000 final votes counted, an unlikely turnaround that the Communists called evidence of rigging.
Galina, a 44-year-old state employee, said she was not a supporter of the Communists, but had gone to vote for the first time in 10 years — for their candidate Andrei Ishchenko — because she wanted change.
“What’s the point of voting if everything has already been decided for us?” she said, declining to give her surname.
Gennady Zyuganov, the veteran leader of the Communist Party, called the situation “criminal lawlessness” and said planned nationwide protests by his party on Saturday would make the rigged election one of their central issues.
“… They stopped the vote count for four hours and started stuffing the ballot boxes using special bandit methods,” Zyuganov told a news briefing in Moscow, calling the imbroglio “a political Chernobyl”.
The scandal is awkward for Putin whose own ratings are under pressure from plans to raise the pension age.
Putin met Tarasenko, who is formally an independent but is widely seen as the ruling United Russia’s candidate, a week ago, ahead of Sunday’s second round, and told him that “everything will be OK”, according to a Kremlin transcript of the meeting.
The comment was widely seen as a personal endorsement of Tarasenko, whom Putin appointed acting governor last year.
Ella Pamfilova, head of the central election commission, told Ekho Moskvy radio her officials were analyzing the vote and that she would send a special commission to investigate.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters the Kremlin was watching the situation and would be guided by Pamfilova.
Tarasenko failed to pass the 50-percent threshold for an outright win in the first round in the Primorsky Region, which includes the Pacific port of Vladivostok, 6,400 km (4,000 miles) east of Moscow.
That, and three other reversals in elections to select regional governors, amounted to the worst showing for Kremlin-backed candidates since 2012. Though there is no immediate threat to the United Russia party’s grip on power, it suggests growing discontent over living standards.
Ishchenko told a crowd of hundreds of people in central Vladivostok on Monday that the vote count had been rigged, and urged supporters to protest every evening until the result was overturned.
“At least 30,000 votes were stolen from us,” he told the crowd, saying the results had been rewritten overnight.
“We shouldn’t stand for it. We have gathered here today to show the authorities that we are the power here, that we decide what happens.”
Ishchenko had earlier said he would go on hunger strike until the result was annulled.
The crowd, some of whom were waving red Communist Party flags with the hammer and sickle, booed United Russia and shouted for Tarasenko to resign.
United Russia accused the Communists of buying votes during the campaign, something the Communists deny.
Standing outside local government headquarters on Monday to protest, Viktoria, a 29-year-old businesswoman who voted for Ishchenko, said she had started celebrating his win the previous night, then woken up to a result she had not expected.
“After this vote, I feel like a nobody. Like I don’t count, someone who doesn’t have the right to vote,” she said.
(Additional reporting by Masha Tsvetkova; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Alison Williams)