The Kremlin eased stiff election laws in response to major protests against Putin's rule last winter, but introduced new restrictions after the demonstrations abated. Kremlin-approved governors and most of the incumbent mayors appeared poised to preserve their seats and the Kremlin's main United Russia party will likely keep dominating local legislatures and municipal councils.
In one of the most visible races Sunday, opposition activist Yevgeniya Chirikova was challenging the government-backed acting mayor of Khimki, a town just outside Moscow.
Chirikova, a 35-year-old mother of two who helped organize the anti-Putin protests in Moscow, filed two petitions—alleging her rival broke campaign rules and that election officials manipulated voter lists. Authorities rejected her complaints, and it was unclear when a court could issue its verdict.
"If the elections were fair, then I'd have some kind of chance," Chirikova said Sunday. "But since the elections in this country are what they are, then my chances are different."
With 30 percent of precincts counted, Khimki acting Mayor Oleg Shakhov was winning the race with 47 percent of the vote, while Chirikova was trailing him with 20 percent. Full preliminary results are expected Monday.
Local authorities repeatedly denied Chirikova a public space to hold a rally; when she and Ksenia Sobchak, a glamorous TV host who became a face of Moscow protests, leafleted a tram this week, an obviously nervous conductor announced the vehicle was broken down and forced all passengers off, after which it drove away, apparently without any problem.
Chirikova's supporters allege that her Kremlin-backed rival is prepared to go to any lengths to prevent her winning, citing alleged ballot irregularities and even threats of violence to observers.
"I'm convinced they decided to do everything with pen and paper after the polls close," Nikolai Lyaskin, Chirikova's campaign manager, said. Observers reported seeing "carousel" voters being ferried on buses between polling stations to vote multiple times, a practice applied frequently in the fraud-tainted parliamentary elections in December that triggered anti-Putin protests.
With turnout low at 28 percent and antipathy towards Chirikova from pension-age voters high, few expected she had much chance of winning in the first place.
Chirikova won fame a few years ago by conducting a fiery campaign to save a local forest from being chopped down to build a highway. She lost that battle to powerful commercial interests, but has since become a prominent opposition figure.
Khimki resident Evgeny Orekhov said he voted for Chirikova "because she is part of the opposition" and "with representatives of the opposition, you want to see how the government will begin to act."
But another voter, Alexandra Zlotnikova, said she did not support Chirikova because she lacked executive experience. "I don't see her as a mayor. The girl is young, she only has thoughts about the forest, the forest, the forest."
Chirikova's campaign reflected challenges also faced by other opposition candidates in nearly 5,000 local elections held Sunday in 77 of Russia's 83 regions.
The opposition Just Russia and Yabloko parties, and Russia's only independent election monitoring group, Golos, pointed at activists' reports on "carousel" voting in many regions of Russia and said that authorities at some polling stations failed to allow observers to verify that ballot boxes were properly sealed. Monitors also witnessed evidence of ballot stuffing and were often denied permission to check voter lists.
Opposition politician Vladimir Ryzhkov said violations in Sunday's vote appeared to be even more blatant and widespread than in December's parliamentary elections.
In western Russia's Tula region, an observer from Yabloko had her finger broken in a scuffle with group of people who tried to stuff a ballot box.
"This kind of open impudence looks scary," Grigory Melkonyants, Golos deputy head, said of the vote violations registered by the group on Sunday.
Responding to protests that drew up to 100,000 people in Moscow, the Kremlin had restored direct elections of provincial governors, which had been abolished by Putin nearly eight years ago. But after Putin's inauguration for a third presidential term in May, he struck back at his foes with repressive bills, and the government put forward new requirements for the gubernatorial vote to retain control.
For instance, the Kremlin introduced "municipal filters," which obliged would-be gubernatorial candidates to get approval for their bid from 5-10 percent of members of local legislatures. With most local legislators heeding Kremlin orders, the requirement made it hard for many opposition candidates to enter races.
As a result, incumbents faced only token competition in gubernatorial races held Sunday in five provinces and were poised to win the vote, according to early returns.
The governor's race in the Ryazan region at one point seemed less sedate than others, with Gov. Oleg Kovalyov facing a rival backed by another pro-government party. But challenger Igor Morozov eventually threw his support behind the incumbent in exchange for a promised seat in the upper house of the federal parliament.
In some of the regions where opposition candidates managed to get registered, they were later barred from the race by courts for various technical reasons.
Earlier this year, the Kremlin also sought to quell public anger by simplifying registration rules for political parties. Sunday's ballot saw dozens of new parties, but only few of them were genuine opposition while most others were loyal to the government or were created as spoilers to steal votes from Kremlin critics.
The Kremlin's United Russia party was leading in the early count from far eastern regions where the vote ended, appearing to retain a majority of seats in the city council of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky and the regional legislature on the Sakhalin Island.
Observers still expected a few leading opposition parties to make headway in elections of city councils in big industrialized cities, where they have the strongest support.
The lack of real competition in many regions has contributed to public apathy, and voter turnout often was low. On the far eastern Kamchatka Peninsula, less than 15 percent of eligible voters turned out Sunday for a local city council election—the lowest turnout in 15 years.
"Political reform has been conducted in the interests of the ruling party," Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov said after the vote ended. "People are reluctant to vote because they realize that."
Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.