(Bloomberg) -- Russia’s ruling party headed for a resounding victory in local elections on Sunday, which represent a dry run for President Vladimir Putin’s reelection next year and an attempt to tighten the country’s grip on occupied areas of Ukraine.
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Voters in 85 regions cast their ballots for a range of regional and municipal offices. Russian authorities also held elections in the four Ukrainian regions — Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk, Luhansk and Kherson — which Moscow annexed a year ago in illegal referendums.
Early results show United Russia is leading in most regional parliament votes while Kremlin-backed candidates are winning governor elections in almost all regions. Putin voted electronically on Saturday in an election where long-time ally Sergei Sobyanin was seeking a new term as mayor, Russian media reported. Sobyanin leads the race after an online vote count, according to Tass.
The election offers authorities an opportunity to hone voter turnout and messaging as they aim to deliver Putin a decisive victory when he’s on the ballot in March. A resounding win would demonstrate that he retains the full support of the country amid the ongoing war next door and after a mutiny that posed the biggest challenge to his almost 25-year rule.
“These elections are important,” offering authorities a way to test voting systems and probe which issues and narratives appeal to voters, said Maria Snegovaya, senior fellow with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The Kremlin needs to check it works well ahead of the 2024 reelection of Putin, where the goal would be to showcase the societal unity around Putin despite the war and the economic cost through high electoral numbers.”
Read more: Putin Turns to Ruble and Ballot to Shore Up Shaken Authority
Putin, 70, is reasserting control after an armed revolt by Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin in June. Prigozhin and top Wagner aides died on Aug. 23 in a plane crash north of Moscow that US officials said bore the hallmarks of a Kremlin-approved execution, which Moscow denied.
The Russian leader, who unleashed the worst armed conflict in Europe since World War II when he invaded neighboring Ukraine in February 2022, will be poised to overtake Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s almost three-decade rule if he secures a new six-year mandate. While Putin hasn’t yet announced if he will stand for reelection, he has the right under the constitution to two more terms, which would keep him in power until the age of 83.
Read more: Russia Holds Early Voting in Occupied Ukrainian Territories
In total, 65 million people out of Russia’s electorate of 108 million were eligible to vote on Sunday for 21 regional leaders, including Moscow mayor, four seats in the lower house of the country’s parliament, and other offices.
Putin’s using the elections in the four annexed Ukrainian regions that he partly controls to cement his territorial claim. Kyiv’s counteroffensive to push out Russian forces has yet to achieve a decisive breakthrough, despite billions in US and European weapons supplies. Regional voting also is taking place in Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014.
In May, Russian lawmakers passed measures to permit elections to take place in regions under martial law. That includes the occupied areas in Ukraine.
United Russia, Putin’s party, was leading in occupied regions with 70% to 80% of votes after polling stations closed on Sunday, the state news service Tass reported. Voter turnout in local parliament elections in these regions featuring candidates hand-picked by Russia was estimated at over 70%, well above most other regions. The elections weren’t monitored by international observers and there were no exit polls.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the elections in those areas would have “no validity under international law.”
The voting in those territories is “a blatant violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, Ukrainian laws and international law — in particular the UN statute,” the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement. “Pseudo-elections by Russia on temporarily occupied territories are legally void. They will not change the status of Ukrainian territories seized by the Russian army.”
Read more: Russia Declares Victory in Sham Ukraine ‘Referendums’
The unprecedented armed rebellion by Prigozhin reflected rising nationalist discontent, including within security structures, at the stalled invasion of Ukraine. Russia has suffered high casualties, with tens of thousands of Russians killed in the fighting, according to western estimates.
“The very fact that elections are being held is important,” given there was a legal opportunity to cancel them amid the ongoing war, said Mikhail Vinogradov, the founder and head of the St. Petersburg Politics Foundation. “The authorities are trying to confirm the perception that nothing terrible is happening inside the country and that they still enjoy significant support from the population.”
Opinion polls show about half of Russians support peace talks, but daily drone attacks now occurring in various Russian regions mean that “everyone is used to the fact that war is routine,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Still, the Russian president is likely to secure a convincing reelection next spring because “people tend to support the leader who wages war,” said Kolesnikov.
--With assistance from Andrey Lemeshko.
(Updates with early results.)
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