Communists Cry Foul Over Opponent's Sudden Surge In Russian Runoff Vote

Supporters of Russia's Communist Party are protesting after the ruling United Russia party's candidate suddenly surged ahead in the final stages of the vote count in a runoff election for governor of the Primorye region.

With 95 percent of the ballots counted on September 17, acting Governor Andrei Tarasenko was nearly 6 percentage points behind Communist challenger Andrei Ishchenko, according to election officials.

But the officials said that once the ballot count reached 99 percent, Tarasenko had 49.5 percent and Ishchenko 48 percent.

Alleging fraud, dozens of Communist supporters protested outside the regional administration building in the Pacific coast port city of Vladivostok.

Ishchenko told RFE/RL that he had cancelled a hunger strike that he had announced earlier. He also withdrew his earlier call for supporters to set up a tent camp on a central square.

He said the change of tactics was adopted following consultations with Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov and in response to positive signals from Central Election Commission Chairwoman Ella Pamfilova.

Ishchenko said Zyuganov urged him to act exclusively "within the framework of the law."

In Moscow, Zyuganov appealed to President Vladimir Putin to look into the situation. He also promised to hold a national protest action on September 22 if there was no progress by then.

The Communist Party is preparing lawsuits challenging the declared results in several districts, Ishchenko said.

Ishchenko said party members who monitored the vote count in several locations had copies of the vote-count protocols that differ from the results announced by local election officials.

Jailed Kremlin opponent Aleksei Navalny, a vocal foe of Putin, issued a tweet urging residents of Primorye to hit the streets for protests "immediately" and for Russians nationwide to support them.

United Russia also accused the Communists of falsifications, and the regional election commission chief, Natalya Kamayeva, said the commission would not announce the results on September 17.

Out of 21 Russian regions in which gubernatorial elections were held on September 9, Primorye was one of four where candidates from Kremlin-controlled United Russia faced runoffs after failing to win 50 percent of the vote in the first round.

Central Election Commission head Pamfilova said on September 17 that election authorities will consider all complaints before official results are announced later in the week.

United Russia, which unequivocally supports President Vladimir Putin, dominates the executive and legislative branches of power on the national, regional, and local levels.

The September 9 elections were a test of Putin's government as it seeks to raise the retirement age for men and women by five years, a highly unpopular move that has prompted protests across the country.

Putin met with Tarasenko ahead of the September 16 runoff and told him that "everything is going to be fine," according to the transcript on the Kremlin website.

The runoff vote came days after Putin hosted Asian leaders, including Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, at an economic forum in Vladivostok last week.

Navalny organized protests in dozens of cities and towns on the day the elections were held.

Police detained more than 1,000 people during the demonstrations, conducting a crackdown that was condemned by human rights groups and Western governments.

With reporting by AP, Interfax, RIA Novosti, and Ekho Moskvy