Local elections took place across the vast reaches of the Russian state on Sunday, but the key focus of interest was Moscow City Council.

In the capital, despite an effective ban on the main opposition party, President Vladimir Putin’s party saw its majority whittled down. The Moscow result highlights a rising discontent towards Putin’s political machine and an increasing distrust of the president himself.

After his Russia of the Future party was barred from running for the capital’s city hall, main opposition leader Alexei Navalny urged his supporters to vote tactically for candidates with the best chances of defeating the party in power – Putin’s United Russia Party.

That strategy appears to have worked – to an extent.

While preserving its majority, the ruling party lost about one-third of the 38 seats it used to control, from a total of 45. The main beneficiary from tactical voting in the capital was the Communist Party, which secured 13 seats.

Navalny’s allies have been celebrating the results, which they see as an encouraging sign ahead of the 2021 National Parliamentary elections. Their hopes are that the upcoming vote could be a turning point for Russia’s political future.

Communists empowered

“Yes, honest people are still a minority in Moscow’s city council,” said Dmitry Gudkov, one of the blacklisted opposition leaders. “But in conditions of repression and police terror, Muscovites showed that they did not intend to put up with this.”

“Of course I was expecting better results – United Russia still has the majority,” Anton Lukyanov, a young Navalny supporter told Asia Times. “Still, I hope that the Communists elected will be denouncing corruption schemes happening in the Moscow Council.”

“Navalny’s tactical vote strategy was the right one, but still the playing field was uneven,” added Pavel Smirnov, another opposition-oriented voter who spoke after casting a ballot in a central district of Saint Petersburg. “The authorities always deploy enormous resources and falsification schemes to support their candidates.”

Political analyst Arkady Dubnov was skeptical about the tactical vote strategy adopted by Navalny, as the results do not reflective citizens’ real political orientations.

“Can someone believe that almost every third Muscovite sympathizes with the Communists?” he asked. “I doubt it.”

Outside the weather vane capital, election results were more mixed.

In the Khabarovsk region, United Russia suffered a heavy defeat with only two candidates elected in the regional parliament and the Liberal Democratic Party – despite its name, a nationalistic party – won by a landslide.

Yet overall, Putin’s political machine prevailed in the 16 governor’s races, including in Saint Petersburg, Russia’s second city, where Putin associate and incumbent governor Aleksandr Beglov secured a second term despite low ratings.

A summer of discontent

Election day followed a series of mass protests that rocked Moscow this summer, after dozens of opposition candidates were barred from running for Moscow City Hall. Officials claimed the signatures collected by these candidates were not valid as they allegedly contained mistakes and falsifications.

Affected candidates denounced their exclusion as politically motivated.

As a result, tens of thousands of Muscovites took to city streets demanding fair elections. According to observers, these were the largest protests since the 2011-2012 unrest that marked Putin’s re-election for his third presidential mandate.

Moscow and pro-Kremlin media largely underplayed the protests, mostly describing them as minority violent unrests, led by radical opposition leaders and supported by western media.

Authorities responded with a heavy-handed crackdown which led to about 2,700 arrests. Protesters were beaten and some are now facing long jail sentences, widely criticized for excessive harshness.

Many blacklisted candidates were associates of Navalny, who has been exposing corruption among the Russian elite in a hugely popular drive. Navalny himself was sentenced to 30 days behind bars for urging citizens to participate in unsanctioned rallies.

According to analysts, the Moscow protests were a lightning rod of broader popular discontent that is eating away at Putin’s formerly unassailable political establishment.

Putin’s popularity plunge

Since his re-election last year, the president’s approval ratings have been dropping sharply, mostly due to a stagnating economy and also to a highly unpopular pension reform that kicked off last year under cover of the World Cup. The plan raised the pension aged, sparking nationwide fury.

The Kremlin’s official – and emotively powerful – narrative depicts Putin’s Russia as a nation that, despite being surrounded by enemies, is a global power on a resurge. This tale has lost some traction in the face of falling living standards. Public trust in Putin, now in this third decade in power, stands at 30% – his lowest point in 13 years.

The decline of United Russia became evident last year, when it failed to secure four key regions in gubernatorial elections. Sunday’s elections in Moscow confirmed this trend. United Russia’s brand has become so toxic that most of its representatives ran as independents in this year’s elections.

Observers had said that Sunday’s polls were always going to be a test for Putin’s party ahead of 2021 Parliamentary elections. The results might give party strategists pause for though. Even with the main opposition leaders barred from running, United Russia found itself vulnerable in the country’s key electoral district, Moscow.

Sunday’s results suggest that the Kremlin’s brain trust needs to come up with a new formula if they are to be confident of preserving United Russia’s control of the country in the near future.