The cat is out the bag and the plot thickens. In parallel to Sunday’s local elections in Russia comes the revelation that the suspected poisoning of the Kremlin critic, Alexei Navalny, happened when he was campaigning for what he called “smart voting”.

In real terms, this implies an appeal to the electorate to vote for the strongest candidate, but one who does not belong to the ruling party, United Russia, helmed by President Vladimir Putin.

Theoretically, the practice thus recommended is concordant with the certitudes of democracy, and Navalny had to pay for his praxis close to three decades after the collapse of the authoritarian Soviet Union (August 1991). It is hard not to wonder whether there has been any fundamental change from the Soviet system of governance This must be the uppermost thought as Navalny recovers in a hospital in Berlin. In his reckoning, his praxis has the potential to weaken the Kremlin’s overwhelming grip over the system.

Equally, it can disrupt the system that, as often as not, does not allow Putin’s detractors to run for office. Given the monolithic leadership, the historical aversion towards critics and detractors persists.

It may yet be a sobering thought that the voting pattern in the local elections will be scrutinised for signs of disaffection with the ruling party, and therein lies a message for the Kremlin. It is significant too that the initiative comes in the aftermath of the poisoning of Navalny.

He had hoped to undermine United Russia’s grip on regional power and had even urged his supporters to vote against it tactically. This was a short while before he fell gravely ill last month in what Germany, pre-eminently its Chancellor Angela Merkel, has alleged was an attempt to kill him, a charge now buttressed by findings of laboratories in France and Sweden. It shall not be easy for the Russian leadership to shore up its image in the face of such serious suspicions and allegations.

United Russia, which backs President Putin, dominates regional politics, and he may preside over the country for a long while yet, thanks to an exceptional tenure that he has put in place. Not that Putin is currently on a strong wicket. The local elections coincide with public frustration over years of falling wages and the government’s handling of the pandemic.

Across the Atlantic, Moscow and Washington have been equally impervious to the disaster. The regional polls in Russia would not have been of much moment were it not for the political implications. They assume importance not the least because they are considered to be the “dry run” for next September’s parliamentary elections. The polls will elect 18 Governors, besides local parliaments and city councils.

It is a measure of the opposition’s determination to counter the establishment that the “smart voting” strategy has entailed the naming of a thousand politicians whom they think can defeat the ruling party candidates on the ballot. Perhaps the poisoning of Navalny may prove the last straw.