NY Dispatches: A single day of voting

On 8 September, in a little less than two weeks elections are going to be held across Russia with 16 regions electing governors and 12 regions (13 if you count the occupied Crimea) electing legislative assemblies. In recent weeks, both Russia and the rest of the world paid attention to Moscow where the disqualification of opposition candidates from the election to the municipal assembly triggered large-scale protests. But the Moscow election is not the only interesting race to take place next week and the stakes are high.

In St. Petersburg, Alexander Beglov, the city’s acting mayor who was appointed a year ago is facing a problematic race. Unlike Moscow, which saw its budget balloon after the 2011-12 protests and went through a monumental urban renewal program, St. Petersburg faced leaner times. Beglov, a former colleague of Vladimir Putin from the time when Putin was deputy mayor of the city, succeeded Georgy Poltavchenko, a former KGB official whose lack of interest in the city’s affairs was legendary. The new mayor was not very eager to change this: although residents did get promises of some grand investments, these have failed to materialize so far; the real-life effects of poor governance, however, have been glaring from the start, e.g. when in February the city was buried in snow. The mayor tried to make up for his publicity failures with a reckless media campaign that involved media controlled by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the shadowy businessman behind Russia’s “troll factory” and the Wagner private army, bribes, threats and a well-documented series of grave campaign violations.

The St. Petersburg race will be interesting to watch simply because with Beglov is so embarrassingly unpopular yet enjoys such a high degree of trust from Putin that local officials will very likely be willing to commit the kind of egregious rigging or voter intimidation that they might not risk in a big city, especially since St. Petersburg will also elect city council members. Not that the past weeks were in want of ridiculous moments: in early August, the opposition’s strongest candidate, Vladimir Bortko, a film director supported by the Communist Party received a warning from the local electoral committee for printing Rudyard Kipling’s “If” in his campaign paper without the permission of copyright holders.

The situation is not equally bad everywhere, but there are several riskier regions with a lot at stake. In Astrakhan, Igor Babushkin, Putin’s former bodyguard is running for governor with a popularity rating of a paltry 41 percent, which means that he may very well face a second round – the kind of which led to the inglorious fall of four pro-Kremlin governors in September last year. Babushkin finds himself in this precarious position despite the fact that his strongest rival will not be on the ballot. Just like Beglov, Babushkin is a textbook example of Russia’s crisis of political responsibility and representative government: a candidate with a low degree of trust among the population of his region whose position is nonetheless stable because he enjoys a high degree of trust by the president.

He is not the only one with low ratings: Oleg Kuvshinnikov in the Vologda Region, Valery Limarenko in Sakhalin, Andrey Bocharov in Volgograd and Oleg Khorokhordin in the Altai Republic all face the threat of a second round if disillusioned voters, like a year ago, rally behind the strongest-looking non-incumbent, whoever they might be. In one of the regions that saw an incumbent voted out of office last year, the Khabarovsk Region, a legislative election will take place, which will give the governor, Sergey Furgal an opportunity to tighten his grip on the region (and raise his price for the Kremlin’s political technologists). The authorities will probably have it easier in the annexed Crimea where a legislative election is going to take place and repression is stronger.

Theoretically, the Kremlin could decide to let go of one or two of these regions in order to divert attention away from the races that really matter to the president – and where therefore there is a stronger chance of riggings and crackdowns – but with the Presidential Administration focused on micromanaging regional races in an increasingly meticulous manner to avoid the repetition of last year’s embarrassing upsets, this seems unlikely. Also, Sergei Kiriyenko, the deputy head of the Presidential Administration overseeing domestic politics might not have a choice. At least this is what Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) is trying to make happen.

The September elections will also be the first major test of “smart voting”, a system promoted by Navalny, which essentially seeks to replicate last year’s electoral upsets by calling on voters always to support the non-incumbent candidate with the highest chances to win, even if they are candidates of so-called “systemic” opposition parties. Leonid Volkov, FBK’s project manager laid out the system for Meduza this month. According to Volkov, Navalny’s campaign has to be able to reach about 3-3.5 percent of the electorate in the affected regions (on average) in order to make a difference. The calculation is based on past turnout figures, often unreliable polling and a lot of wishful thinking, but it is true that last year, it was an even smaller percentage of voters – one percent in the first round and less than two percent in the second round – that led to the likely defeat of Andrey Tarasenko, the incumbent governor of the Primorsky Krai (the Kremlin annulled the election). Navalny is also right in observing that the Kremlin’s domestic political machine, built on the toolbox of electoral autocracy, cannot afford not to have at least one “opposition” candidate. Even with the mass doxing of opposition workers, supporters and sympathizers that is meant make voters afraid of sharing their data with Navalny’s campaign, and United Russia politicians running as independents to confuse voters, “smart voting” clearly has a shot in September, probably more so than ever.

What Navalny’s “smart voting” system does not answer is what happens on the day after the election. With the authorities having disqualified most actual opposition candidates (and some stronger “systemic” candidates too), it is likely that those with a shot at toppling incumbents will be eager (or at least willing) to be co-opted or otherwise convinced by pro-government forces. This does not necessarily mean that supporting a dummy candidate makes no sense – after all, even competition between systemic forces can lead to more pluralistic politics, especially in a period of volatility in the political elite – but it does mean that it is difficult to plan the next step, let alone offer a political vision that goes beyond the standard understanding of what these elections are, even as an increasing number of voters seem to have moved beyond it.

Thus both the opposition and the authorities seem to be bogged down in project management, with the Kremlin having run out of a political vision to offer voters and the opposition being unable to do so for the want of means. Next week will show if last year’s protest votes were only an anomaly caused by massive anger with the government’s pension reform or the opposition movement has actually gained a foothold in the regions. If “smart voting” outsmarts the Kremlin’s political technologists, round two will begin. By seeking durable alliances and accepting sometimes tough, sometimes unpleasant compromises, the opposition movement can outsmart them again.

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