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Kremlin loses regional votes amid anger over pension reform

Ola CICHOWLAS
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A recent series of regional elections in Russia has been marked by protests against a pensions reform backed by President Vladimir Putin

Russia's ruling party suffered two rare defeats in regional elections this weekend as its candidates lost to populists amid widespread discontent over a pension reform backed by President Vladimir Putin.

A second round of governorship elections was held in two key regions on Sunday, after support for the pro-Kremlin United Russia part saw its strongest decline in a decade during election day on September 9.

Vladimir Sipyagin, of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), won 57 percent of the vote in the Vladimir region located 190 kilometres (120 miles) northeast of Moscow.

He defeated the incumbent United Russia governor Svetlana Orlova, who won 37.5 percent of the vote, results showed on Monday.

United Russia also lost to nationalists in the far eastern Khabarovsk region, where LDPR candidate Sergei Furgal won nearly 70 percent of the vote against current governor Vyacheslav Shport.

Sunday's runoff votes were held after the United Russia candidates failed to win at least 50 percent of the vote in a first stage on September 9.

"There is, of course, an element of surprise," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, referring to the election results.

He insisted that the results in the Vladimir and Khabarovsk regions proved the votes were "free, honest and just."

This month the Kremlin also suffered election blows in the far eastern region of Primorsky Krai and the southern Siberia region of Khakhasia, where its candidates failed to win in the first round.

The next-round runoff in Primorsky Krai was cancelled following protests over vote-rigging in favour of a United Russia candidate backed by Putin. A re-run is expected to be held in three months.

Khakasia has yet to hold a runoff vote.

- Protest votes -

The election blows came after widespread discontent over a Kremlin-backed plan to raise the retirement age, which has triggered street protests and led to a major drop in Putin's approval ratings.

Voters across Russia are also angry over rising poverty, partly due to Western sanctions.

In a rare show of unity, Russia's liberal and parliamentary opposition have opposed the government's pension reform.

The LDPR and the the Communist Party are tolerated by the Kremlin and sit in the lower house of parliament. While they support the Kremlin's foreign policy, they occasionally challenge its stance on domestic issues.

Putin's top critic Alexei Navalny also organised protests against the reform.

On Monday, Navalny was detained on his release from jail after serving a 30-day sentence for an unauthorised protest.

Writing on Twitter, his associate Lyubov Sobol wrote that the 42-year-old opposition politician was detained again "because authorities are now weaker than ever."

"The overwhelming majority of people are against raising the retirement age and United Russia was defeated in gubernatorial elections in key regions," she wrote.

"They are scared, panicking and taking revenge."