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Russian cleaners rise to power in village surprise vote



By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, Moscow

Povalikhino council building

copyright of the imagePovalikhino Council

image captionThis is the Povalikhino building that Marina Udgodskaya spent years cleaning

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

Now the 35-year-old cleaning lady is throwing down her tea towels to move to the boss’s seat, after winning an election earlier this month that she joined only to have him reconfirm.

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

That plan failed when the cleaner hit it with a landslide.

‘She was flabbergasted’

“Nikolai Loktev thought that no one would vote for her and he would stay in the job. But people had had enough and they went out and chose Marina Udgodskaya,” a member of the local electoral commission told the BBC from Povalikhino.

“He was flabbergasted and she was flabbergasted!” the woman, who did not want to be identified, laughed over the telephone line.

He says he personally heard Mr. Loktev ask the cleaning lady to object to him.

copyright of the imageGetty Images
image captionThe outgoing boss in Povalikhino has no grudges for the former cleaning lady who takes over (file photo)

Ms Udgodskaya was inundated with calls after her surprise win made national news.

“I did nothing”

It has since stopped answering the phone and is keeping a low profile ahead of its unveiling later this week.

But in one of the first interviews she appeared stunned by her victory, describing herself as a “fake” candidate who “wasn’t ready” for such a quick promotion.

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

Even so, it won nearly 62% of the vote. His boss only managed 34%.

Neither candidate actively campaigned before the elections: no posters, no flyers, no meetings with voters. Locals argue that it doesn’t make sense when everyone knows everyone else.

Map

Povalikhino, dotted with brightly painted one-story wooden buildings, is the largest of the 30 villages that fall under the aegis of the administration that Ms. Udgodskaya will now manage.

It has just 242 inhabitants.

“I have done everything necessary in the work; there are no problems in the village,” Loktev told the BBC in one of his last days in office, struggling to understand his defeat.

“Clearly people wanted a change,” concluded the 58-year-old former policeman.

‘I think he will make it’

Some have suggested that the result was a protest against Loktev’s United Russia party, which saw a decline 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 – by supporting the candidate most likely to defeat United Russia – has brought some new faces to politics.

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

“If we could have voted

against everything we would, but we had a chance to vote for Marina, so we did, “explained Irina.

“I think he will make it. The whole village will help. Although, of course, his education needs a little boost.”

Like it or not, Ms. Udgodskaya is stuck with her new job. If she turned down the role, the Pensioners’ Party that supports her says she should pay for a re-run of the entire election.

He prefers to paint his candidate as a Cinderella figure rather than an accidental winner.

“She worked in the administration as a cleaner and saw how everything was done, and of course in her heart she had the idea of ​​participating,” says spokesperson Valery Gromov – and shrugs at her lack of experience.

“Svetlana Tikhanovskaya was a housewife and knew nothing! Now she is at the peak of her popularity,” he claims, referring to the Belarusian opposition leader.

Until she steps into her new role, Marina Udgodskaya is said to continue with her cleaning job as the man she so brutally defeated packs up and moves out.

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

Then she added, “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with her taking care of the place she cleaned. It means she knows her way around.”

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