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Russia votes in local elections targeted by stricken Navalny

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russians vote in an array of local elections on Sunday that will test the ruling United Russia party’s grip on power less than a month after the suspected poisoning of outspoken Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.

FILE PHOTO: Russia's President Vladimir Putin, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the Russian Land Forces Oleg Salyukov leave after the Victory Day Parade in Red Square in Moscow, Russia June 24, 2020. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

The elections had been targeted by Navalny, who was urging his followers to vote tactically against the party that backs President Vladimir Putin before he fell gravely ill in what Germany and his allies say was an attempt to kill him.

Putin looks unassailable as president despite his approval rating slipping to two-decade lows earlier this year.

But the results will be parsed for signs of protest voting spurred by frustrations over years of falling wages, the government’s handling of the pandemic, and the ensuing economic fallout.

The elections are seen by the Kremlin as a dry run for parliament elections next September and will elect 18 regional governors and a slew of local parliaments and city councillors. Early voting began on Friday.

The rating of United Russia, which dominates politics across Russia’s 11 time zones, dipped last month to 30.5%, its lowest since 2006, according to the state pollster VTsIOM, but it still remains much higher than that of Russia’s other parliamentary parties.

Before he fell ill, Navalny was promoting a strategy he said aimed to disrupt a political system that often bars the Kremlin’s staunchest foes from elections, while allowing softer candidates from the parliamentary parties to compete.

The strategy, which his allies are pressing ahead with, calls on supporters to back specific candidates - often from the Communist or LDPR nationalist parties - to hurt United Russia.

The anti-corruption campaigner also has dozens of allies running in elections for the city councils of Novosibirsk and Tomsk in Siberia. He was flying back to Moscow after meeting them when he collapsed suddenly last month.

These are the first elections since constitutional reforms were passed allowing Putin to run for two more six-year terms in the Kremlin, potentially extending his rule until 2036, instead of stepping down in 2024.

Weighed down by a lockdown that inflicted economic pain on some households, Putin’s approval rating dipped to 59% in April, a two-decade low, but then recovered to 66% last month, according to the Levada opinion pollster.

There have been some signs of anti-Kremlin discontent in the regions.

Mass rallies in the far eastern city of Khabarovsk show no sign of abating two months after they flared over the arrest of a popular local governor who defeated United Russia’s candidate in an election upset in 2018.

Editing by Angus MacSwan

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