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A man walks out of a voting booth at a polling station during the Moscow city parliament election, in Moscow, Russia, on Sept. 8, 2019.Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters

On the surface, there was little for Russia’s opposition to celebrate in the results of Moscow’s city council elections: The new council, like the old one, will be dominated by politicians loyal to the Kremlin and to President Vladimir Putin.

But after a campaign in which dozens of opposition candidates were disqualified, triggering the biggest anti-government protests in almost a decade, Mr. Putin’s opponents were cheering the results of Sunday’s election as a significant victory because the pro-Kremlin majority on council was dramatically reduced, apparently as the result of a tactical voting effort.

“Congratulations everyone. I’m ready to walk around Moscow and kiss everyone,” Alexey Navalny, Mr. Putin’s most prominent critic, wrote on his web page after the results became clear on Monday. “Smart voting has worked.”

With his political allies barred from taking part, Mr. Navalny controversially called on his supporters to vote for whoever had the best chance of defeating the pro-Kremlin candidate in their district.

For some of his liberal-minded supporters, Mr. Navalny’s call for tactical voting meant holding their noses and casting their ballots for the Communist Party – the political descendants of Lenin and Stalin – or the far-right Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR).

While the alliances of convenience that developed were harshly criticized by some opposition figures, the tactic appears to have been at least partly successful. Official results published on Monday showed candidates affiliated with Mr. Putin’s United Russia movement had won 25 of 45 seats, down from 40 seats in the previous city council.

The Communists were the main beneficiaries, winning 13 seats, up from five previously. Two other small opposition parties that are tolerated by the Kremlin (unlike Mr. Navalny’s movement) won a combined seven seats.

In the biggest upset, tactical voting boosted a little-known Communist candidate to victory over Andrei Metelsky, the head of United Russia’s Moscow chapter.

City council elections in Russia are usually low-key affairs. But this year’s vote came to be seen as a preliminary skirmish ahead of a bigger battle in 2021, when the next elections to the national parliament, known as the Duma, will be held.

With Mr. Putin entering what are expected to be his last years in office – he is constitutionally barred from running again when his term expires in 2024 – the coming Duma election is seen as crucial in setting the stage for whatever comes next.

The high stakes added to the tension during a summer of unrest in Moscow. When the opposition repeatedly took to the streets to protest the disqualification of its candidates – one demonstration drew a reported 60,000 people – the authorities cracked down harder than in the past. Watchdog groups say more than 2,700 people were arrested, and several protesters were charged under new laws that could allow them to be jailed for up to eight years.

While most of the focus was on the Moscow race, United Russia suffered other setbacks in local elections that were held across the country on Sunday, most notably in the eastern city of Khabarovsk, where the openly xenophobic LDPR won 34 of 35 seats. Khabarovsk sits on the country’s border with China, and has seen an influx of Chinese workers and businesses.

United Russia was also defeated in the Siberian city of Irkutsk, but held on in most other regions. Kremlin loyalists won all 16 regional governor elections, including in Russia’s second city, St. Petersburg, that were contested on Sunday.

Dmitry Peskov, Mr. Putin’s spokesman, played down the opposition gains in Moscow and elsewhere. “On the whole, United Russia’s campaign across the country was very, very successful. In some places, it got more seats, in others fewer. Across the country, the party showed its political leadership,” he told reporters on Monday.

However, many United Russia candidates ran as independents, seeking to disassociate themselves from a brand that has become increasingly toxic, with some polls showing its approval rating has fallen to 20 per cent or lower in the Russian capital. The party, which Mr. Putin founded in 2001, has become synonymous with corruption, and is widely blamed for the stubbornly low living standards in the country, as well as a 2018 decision to raise the pension age by five years.

Nonetheless, after two decades in power – a period in which independent media has been throttled, and all serious political opposition marginalized – Mr. Putin’s own approval rating remains above 60 per cent nationwide. Many Russians credit him with restoring the country’s status as a major power on the world stage.

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