"This kind of open impudence looks scary," Grigory Melkonyants, Golos deputy head, said of the vote violations registered by the group on Sunday.
Responding to protests that drew up to 100,000 people in Moscow, the Kremlin had restored direct elections of provincial governors, which had been abolished by Putin nearly eight years ago. But after Putin's inauguration for a third presidential term in May, he struck back at his foes with repressive bills, and the government put forward new requirements for the gubernatorial vote to retain control.
For instance, the Kremlin introduced "municipal filters," which obliged would-be gubernatorial candidates to get approval for their bid from 5-10 percent of members of local legislatures. With most local legislators heeding Kremlin orders, the requirement made it hard for many opposition candidates to enter races.
As a result, incumbents faced only token competition in gubernatorial races held Sunday in five provinces and were poised to win the vote, according to early returns.
The governor's race in the Ryazan region at one point seemed less sedate than others, with Gov. Oleg Kovalyov facing a rival backed by another pro-government party. But challenger Igor Morozov eventually threw his support behind the incumbent in exchange for a promised seat in the upper house of the federal parliament.
In some of the regions where opposition candidates managed to get registered, they were later barred from the race by courts for various technical reasons.
Earlier this year, the Kremlin also sought to quell public anger by simplifying registration rules for political parties. Sunday's ballot saw dozens of new parties, but only few of them were genuine opposition while most others were loyal to the government or were created as spoilers to steal votes from Kremlin critics.
The Kremlin's United Russia party was leading in the early count from far eastern regions where the vote ended, appearing to retain a majority of seats in the city council of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky and the regional legislature on the Sakhalin Island.
Observers still expected a few leading opposition parties to make headway in elections of city councils in big industrialized cities, where they have the strongest support.
The lack of real competition in many regions has contributed to public apathy, and voter turnout often was low. On the far eastern Kamchatka Peninsula, less than 15 percent of eligible voters turned out Sunday for a local city council election — the lowest turnout in 15 years.
"Political reform has been conducted in the interests of the ruling party," Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov said after the vote ended. "People are reluctant to vote because they realize that."
Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.
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