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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Belgorod Poll Leaves Zhirinovsky a Distant 3rd

Nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky suffered a humiliating defeat in Sunday's election for governor of the Belgorod region, coming in third place with 17.7 percent of the vote.

Incumbent Yevgeny Savchenko, a member of the Agrarian Party, was re-elected with 53.4 percent, while runner-up Mikhail Beskhmelnitsyn, an Audit Chamber official whose campaign was backed by the Communist Party, lagged far behind with 19.7 percent. Voter turnout was 71.3 percent.

Zhirinovsky, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party's faction in the State Duma, had spent all of last week providing Belgorod voters with populist rhetoric and attacks on Savchenko - not to mention LDPR T-shirts and copies of his songbook, "Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Favorite Songs." In the tiny region of less than 1.5 million people, the famous politician's presence was the biggest news in years.

Immediately after the results were announced Monday, LDPR said they were falsified and vowed to challenge them in court.

Zhirinovsky spokesman Konstantin Deich said by telephone from Belgorod that LDPR observers had witnessed falsification connected to "early voting, substitution of ballot boxes and extra ballots."

Zhirinovsky also complained that Belgorod officials tried to intimidate his supporters.

"There were violations from the first day of registration," he said on NTV television. "They called out people and asked them, 'Did you sign for Zhirinovsky?' People confirmed it. ... This is arbitrary rule, this is worse than fascism, worse than some uncivilized African country."

Clearly annoyed by Zhirinovsky's complaints, Nikolai Pletnyov, chairman of the regional election committee, denied any wrongdoing when he was reached by telephone Monday.

"He [Zhirinovsky] was here 15 minutes ago. He said, 'You're being pressured by Savchenko, you're under his thumb,'" Pletnyov said. "Zhirinovsky and his campaign are the only ones who feel that way. ... He has to say that to explain why he lost."

Pletnyov said that Zhirinovsky's charges were ridiculous given that the race was not even close. But Deich said that if the elections had been fair, Zhirinovsky "would have got at least twice as many votes."

Runner-up Beskhmelnitsyn, who had the support of the liberal Yabloko party as well as the Communists, said he was not yet ready to comment on the fairness of the vote, but dismissed Zhirinovsky's charges. "Zhirinovsky is out of luck - that much is certain."

Observers said Zhirinovsky was interested in the governor's post because it comes with a seat in the Federation Council, or upper house of parliament. With the party leader's popularity waning, it is not clear whether LDPR will win any seats in the Duma elections this fall.

Some Duma deputies are elected as representatives of districts, while others gain seats on party lists. LDPR deputies do not have a strong political base in any particular region; they gained their 48 seats in the lower house by winning 11.8 percent of the national vote.

But a repeat performance of the 1995 election seems unlikely for LDPR. Nationalism - the essence of the party's ideology - has become fair territory for Communists and other leftists. And while Zhirinovsky gained popularity by criticizing Boris Yeltsin, he has consistently supported the president on key issues, notably in last month's impeachmentvote.

Political analyst Andrei Ryabov of the Carnegie Moscow Center said Zhirinovsky's failure made it clear that his "aggressive, modernist" campaign strategies - which work so well among disaffected residents of regions plagued by ethnic strife - do not work in conservative regions like Belgorod.

Ryabov gave Zhirinovsky a 30 percent chance of winning a place in the Duma.