A Kremlin-backed candidate for governor of Russia's Far East region of Primorye was on track to win a repeat election for the post after officials nullified an earlier ballot over electoral irregularities.
With more than one-third of the ballots counted late on December 16, Russia's Central Election Commission said Kremlin-backed acting Governor Oleg Kozhemyako was leading with about 60 percent of the vote.
The preliminary results showed Andrei Andreichenko of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) in second place with about 25 percent of the vote.
Kozhemyako had a massive lead in preelection polls. A candidate must secure at least 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff.
Two other candidates -- Aleksei Timchenko of the Party of Growth and Roza Chemeris of the For Women of Russia movement, were not expected to mount a serious challenge to Kozhemyako.
Election officials reported a turnout of 39.6 percent -- up from 29.2 percent in September, when the previous election was held but later nullified.
The December 16 vote was the third attempt to pick a leader for the territory after the local election commission on September 20 annulled the results of the second round, which the country's top election official said was marred by 'serious violations.'
The September 16 runoff was thrown into dispute in the final stages of the vote count, triggering tension in the Far Eastern region.
In a last-minute reversal, the candidate from the Kremlin-controlled United Russia party, acting Governor Andrei Tarasenko, suddenly erased Communist rival Andrei Ishchenko's substantial lead and surged ahead.
'We believe that in the circumstances, it is not possible to reliably understand the result of the will of the people, which means we can't declare either of the candidates elected,' commission head Tatyana Gladkikh said on September 20.
Tarasenko called the decision to have a rerun 'fair,' telling Russian media, 'There have been too many complaints.' Ishchenko protested, however, insisting he should be declared the winner.
In Moscow, Central Election Commission chief Ella Pamfilova had recommended that the regional commission annul the vote result, citing a number of violations, which included ballot-box stuffing, vote-buying, forcing people to vote, and altering records of the count.
However, neither Tarasenko nor Ishchenko is competing in the December 16 rerun. After the second-round results were annulled, Tarasenko resigned as acting governor and pulled out of the race.
On November 20, the regional election commission announced that Ishchenko's application to be a candidate contained numerous flaws, and that he was not eligible to participate in the December 16 rerun, one of at least five candidates rejected by the commission.
Kozhemyako, who was governor of the Sakhalin region, was appointed acting head of Primorye to replace Tarasenko and was far ahead in the latest polls.
Ishchenko complained bitterly to local news site VL.ru after his disqualification was announced. 'I expected this. The system allows only its own people,' he said.
'For the elections to be legitimate, decent candidates must be allowed to run against political heavyweight Oleg Kozhemyako. But it's freshmen who are entering the ring with the world boxing champion,' he said of the other candidates.
Kremlin critics consider the Communist Party a pliant part of President Vladimir Putin's ruling system, and it supports Putin's initiatives with some frequency, but the rivalry on the regional level is very real and any Communist victory is embarrassing for Putin and United Russia, which dominates politics nationwide.
The Primorye region was one of four territories -- out of 21 total Russian regions -- in which runoffs were needed after no candidate received 50 percent of the vote in the original election on September 9. The other three held runoffs on September 23.
Vladivostok is the administrative center of the Primorye region, which has a population of about 2 million people.
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, Interfax, and TASS RFE/RL
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