Russian cleaner sweeps to power in surprise village vote

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By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, Moscow

Image rightsPovalikhino CouncilImage descriptionThis is the building in Povalikhino that Marina Udgodskaya cleaned for years *: not ([hidden]): not (style) ~ *: not ([hidden]): not (style) {margin-top: 1rem;}]]>

For the past four years, Marina Udgodskaya has been scrubbing and mopping the offices of the local administration building in Povalikhino in rural Russia.

Now the 35-year-old cleaning lady is dropping her dusters to sit in the boss’s seat after winning an election earlier this month that she only went to to reappoint him.

When no one in the village signed up to challenge Nikolai Loktev, who is from the pro-Kremlin party United Russia, he persuaded Ms. Udgodskaya to register as his “rival” to ensure the minimum requirement of two candidates.

This plan failed when the cleaner hit him in a landslide.

“She was amazed”

“Nikolai Loktev thought nobody would vote for her and he would stay in the job. But people had enough and they came out and chose Marina Udgodskaya,” a member of the local electoral commission told the BBC.

“He was amazed and she was amazed!” The woman who refused to be identified laughed over the phone line.

She says she personally heard Mr. Loktev ask the cleaner to stand up against him.

Image rightsGetty ImagesImage descriptionThe outgoing boss in Povalikhino has no harsh feelings about the takeover of the former cleaner (file picture)

Ms. Udgodskaya was inundated with phone calls after her surprise victory hit national headlines.

“I did nothing”

She has not answered the phone since then and will go undone before her inauguration later this week.

But in an early interview, she appeared stunned by her victory, describing herself as a “fake” candidate who was “not ready” for such a quick promotion.

“I didn’t think people would actually vote for me,” she told Telegram news channel Podyom. “I didn’t do anything at all!”

Even so, it won almost 62% of the vote. Your boss only managed 34%.

None of the candidates actively fought before the election: no billboards, no flyers, no meetings with the voters. Locals argue that it doesn’t make sense for everyone to know each other.

Povalikhino, dotted with brightly painted, one-story wooden buildings, is the largest of 30 villages that come under the umbrella of the administration. Mrs. Udgodskaya is now conducted.

It has only 242 inhabitants.

“I’ve done everything necessary in the job; there are no problems in the village,” Loktev told the BBC on one of his last days in office, trying to understand his defeat.

“Obviously people wanted to change something,” concluded the 58-year-old former police officer.

“I think she can handle it.”

Some have suggested that the result was a protest against Mr Loktev’s United Russia party, which collapsed in polls across the country. In Kostroma, where Povalikhino is located, the party only won 32% of the votes for the regional parliament.

Elsewhere, a smart voting strategy promoted by opposition politician Alexei Navalny, which backed the candidate most likely to defeat United Russia, brought some new faces into politics.

  • The Russian opposition gains in local polls
  • How Navalny’s team found Novichok bottle evidence
  • Alexei Navalny: Russia’s noisy Putin critic

But in Povalikhino, the village shopkeeper insists that this result was personal: Mr. Loktev simply stopped showing interest in his responsibilities.

“If we could have voted against everything we would have done, but we had the opportunity to vote for Marina, so we did,” explained Irina.

“I think she can handle it. The whole village will help. Of course her training needs a little boost.”

Like it or not, Ms. Udgodskaya is sticking to her new job. If she turned down the role, the retirees’ party that supports her said she would have to pay to repeat the entire election.

It would rather paint its candidate as a Cinderella than as a random winner.

“She worked in the administration as a cleaning lady and saw how everything was done, and of course the idea came to her in her heart to take part,” says spokesman Valery Gromov – and he shakes off her lack of experience.

“Svetlana Tikhanovskaya was a housewife and didn’t know anything! Now she is at the height of her popularity,” he argues, referring to the opposition leader in Belarus.

Until she takes on her new role, Marina Udgodskaya is supposed to continue her cleaning work while the man she defeated packs his things so neatly and undresses.

“I’m not upset,” insisted Nikolai Loktev. “People voted for her, so let her do her job.”

Then he added, “I don’t think it’s bad for her to be responsible for the place she used to clean. It means that she knows what she is doing.”

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