Vladimir Putin. Picture: REUTERS
Vladimir Putin. Picture: REUTERS

Moscow — President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party lost governorships in three regions as the fallout from popular anger over a plan to boost the retirement age makes usually tightly controlled polls more competitive.

Candidates from the populist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) beat United Russia incumbents in the Khabarovsk and Vladimir regions, according to the Central Election Commission. Another United Russia candidate withdrew his name from the run-off ballot in Khakassia at the weekend after coming in second in the initial round of voting.

While United Russia won in 18 of 22 gubernatorial races held in September, losses for the party are unusual in Russia’s heavily choreographed elections. They came as Putin’s approval rating slumped to the lowest in more than a decade after the government announced a plan to raise the pension age by five years for men and women, to 65 and 60, respectively. The unpopular reforms also led to protests earlier in September, with more than 1,000 arrested in nearly 40 cities across Russia.

"This is unequivocally a protest vote," Alexander Kynev, a specialist on regional politics at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, said. "People are unhappy with the Kremlin’s policy and they’re ready to vote for anyone who isn’t a representative of United Russia."

Though it benefited from popular discontent, the LDPR is routinely loyal to the Kremlin and the electoral losses are not likely to cause major changes in policy. But they are a sign of the growing political challenge for Putin and his allies.

"On the one hand, this was a protest vote, but I wouldn’t directly link it to United Russia," Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the Moscow-based Centre for Political Technologies, said.

LDPR’s Vladimir Sipyagin won the election in Vladimir in central Russia, unseating United Russia’s Svetlana Orlova.

In the Far Eastern region of Khabarovsk, Sergey Furgal beat acting governor Vyach- slav Shport.

The acting governor of Khakassia in Siberia, Viktor Zimin, withdrew his candidacy from the second round of election.