In Yaroslavl, 250 km northeast of Moscow, coalition opposition candidate Yevgeny Urlashov beat United Russia's Yakov Yakushev 69.65% to 27.78% in a run-off election on April 1.
Urlashov was backed by a combination of the Communist Party, A Just Russia, Yabloko, the Patriots of Russia, and former presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov.
Observers, including the Golos NGO, called the run-off election amazingly fair and transparent, even though controversy had been set off previously when election officials initially tried to block Urlashov from the run-off, despite his having led all candidates in the previous round of voting.
The opposition victory came despite the fact Yaroslavl had been ruled by the same mayor for two decades, who attempted to anoint his successor, the losing United Russia candidate, before then leaving town. United Russia figures tied to the Duma have been critical of Yaroslavl voters but indicated they would work with the new mayor.
The Yaroslavl election comes on the heels of an opposition mayoral victory in Togliatti, a center of the automotive industry.
Meanwhile, in Astrakhan, A Just Russia candidate Oleg Shein won a first round of voting with a plurality, only to have election officials later declare that the United Russia candidate won a run-off by a 2 to 1 margin. The opposition candidate cried foul and went on a hunger strike alleging election fraud, joined by 19 other hunger strikers.
While some past wins by challengers saw the challengers incorporated into United Russia itself, the latest events are seen as a sea change resulting from protest politics and the declining strength of United Russia:
Nikolai Petrov, of the Moscow Carnegie Center, has told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that before "any winner was always promptly incorporated into the ruling party and United Russia even celebrated such victories as its own." "Now the trend is going to be different. Urlashov has already said that he would not join United Russia. What makes Yaroslavl so remarkable is it saw an expansion of the model of protest voting. This is an indication that the slight growth in United Russia's rating lately was virtual, not real." The Kremlin can no longer afford to back United Russia, and it is far more cautious, fearing a popular outcry. "Now one can hope that the election in Yaroslavl will serve as a precedent, and the case of the hunger-striking opposition in Astrakhan will be resolved in people's favor," says Petrov.click here to read more from ITAR-TASS
Political scientist Alexander Kynev is quoted by the daily Novyie Izvestia as saying the electoral potential of United Russia has been practically exhausted. "The ruling party is in an electoral impasse. It should revise its strategy in the radical way. There must be cooperation with the systemic opposition, with the non-systemic opposition and with civil society. Also it should drop its bellicose rhetoric. If United Russia fails to do that, its rating will continue to roll downhill."