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Pension Fight Hurts Putin's Party in Regional Elections in Russia

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Russian President Vladimir Putin got a taste of public anger at his plans to increase the pension age as voters turned on the ruling party in regional elections and hundreds were arrested at protests against the reform.

United Russia’s candidates for governor in four regions, mostly in the country’s east, were forced into runoffs after failing to win majorities in elections Sunday. They trailed Communist and nationalist opponents in two of the races, gaining as little as 32% support in elections that are usually tightly controlled by the Kremlin to deliver rubber-stamp endorsements of its candidates.

(Related: Putin Eases Push for Increase in Normal Retirement Age)

“These elections are a defeat for the authorities,” said Valery Solovei, a political analyst at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations. “This is how the fall in Putin’s ratings manifests itself.”

More than 1,000 people were arrested in nearly 40 cities at opposition protests over the changes to pensions that coincided with the vote, according to OVD-Info, a rights-monitoring organization. They including 452 in St. Petersburg where riot police were filmed beating demonstrators with batons.

United Russia also suffered defeats to the Communists in party-list votes for three regional parliaments. It’s the first time since 2007 that it failed to win party elections, Vedomosti reported. The pro-Putin party retained its grip on power in 17 other gubernatorial elections including for mayor of Moscow, where Sergei Sobyanin won 70% of the vote on turnout of just 31%. Its strong showing came in part thanks to strict restrictions that prevented opposition candidates getting on the ballot, as well as domination of state media.

The results had some “rough edges” and they will be dealt with, Putin said during a State Council meeting on Monday in Vladivostok. Runoff votes in some areas are an “absolutely normal” event, he said.

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Putin’s approval rating has slumped to its lowest in more than seven years over the plan to raise the pension age by five years for men and women, to 65 and 60 respectively. He sought to defuse discontent last month by softening some elements of the proposals in a televised address. Even so, demonstrations took place in more than 80 towns and cities Sunday after opposition leader Alexey Navalny had urged Russians to protest the measures.

The scale of the electoral setbacks for United Russia is “a unique situation,” said Dmitry Orlov, a political analyst who’s a member of the party’s supreme council. “This is not a defeat for the Kremlin, but a balanced result in the conditions in which the elections were held,” he said.

The “unexpected failures” of the ruling party “are a bombshell similar to the spirit of 2011,” when the largest anti-Kremlin protests of Putin’s era erupted over alleged ballot-rigging, Kirill Rogov, a Moscow-based political analyst, said on Facebook.

—With assistance from Anna Andrianova.

— Read Putin’s Silence Unnerves Russia After ‘Panic’ Over Retirement Age Planon ThinkAdvisor.

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