NY Dispatches: the limits of smart voting

Russia held local and regional elections on Sunday. While in Moscow where the election was preceded by weeks of protests over disqualified opposition candidates and police brutality, United Russia lost one-third of its deputies in the Municipal Assembly (including a high-profile member), in all 16 regions that held gubernatorial elections the governing party’s candidates triumphed, sometimes helped by blatant rigging. Even in Moscow where Alexei Navalny’s “smart voting” strategy – instructing voters to vote for the non-United Russia candidate with the best chances – worked the best, the governing party will keep its majority and turnout stayed below 22 percent. The vote was, at best, a partial success for Navalny but as it showed the limits of smart voting, the opposition can start working on moving beyond these.

The most interesting takeaway from the mixed success of smart voting was that it worked the least in the regions even though the present iteration of the system was inspired by last year’s electoral upsets in four Russian regions where voters turned out in higher-than-usual numbers and supported candidates from so-called “systemic” opposition parties whose sole role was to lend legitimacy to the elections by standing. Replicating this in different regions across Russia was a tempting idea and Navalny could reasonably expect that his campaign’s efforts to build up presence at the countryside would allow smart voting to make an impact in regions. Two circumstances were different, however: last September was at the tail end of nationwide discontent over the Russian government’s pension reform, which in many regions added to local grievances and catalyzed political action; and the votes caught the authorities off-guard. This time they were prepared: in some regions incumbents campaigned much more actively than a year ago; in some (e.g. Moscow) the disqualification of opposition candidates and a brutal crackdown on protesters likely contributed to low turnout, even as they raised the stakes of the election; in some other regions – like St. Petersburg –, authorities were prepared to rig the vote in a more efficient but just as shameless manner than last year.

Even in Moscow where smart voting worked best, almost 80 percent of voters stayed home. Even with a very low turnout candidates supported by Navalny’s campaign won in 20 out of 45 districts, but these are mostly communist candidates most whom were unpalatable for liberal voters. Navalny’s associates celebrated the results in Moscow as a victory, but for the government it will most likely be an experiment. In the two years that remain before the 2021 legislative election political technologists will look at the Moscow Municipal Assembly to see what difference the presence of the liberal Yabloko party and the higher number of communist deputies make as long as United Russia keeps its majority.

Smart voting was probably Navalny’s best bet. As long as the authorities get to decide who gets to run in an election – and this year’s vote was primarily about showing that they still have the power to decide this – they can ensure that voters ultimately end up with alternative candidates who do not inspire trust. And as Sunday’s vote showed, while smart voting may make a difference in certain elections and when the circumstances are right, voters will not necessarily always turn out in large numbers just to vote for whoever seems to have the largest statistical change to defeat the United Russia-candidate, not even in Moscow after weeks of protests.

Whether or not smart voting can be taken to the next level will, to a large extent, depend on whether the parties of the systemic opposition (or their likely patrons in the political elite) are willing to take themselves seriously and field candidates with whom a larger part of the electorate can negotiate and make plans. Presently, these parties are simply piggy-backing on Navalny’s experiment to increase their price in the Kremlin, but seem unlikely to do much else. They can do this, since they are still much more established in the regions than Navalny’s organization. The fact that it was Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the head of the Liberal Democratic Party, which was the main beneficiary of last year’s impromptu smart voting, who today proposed investigating Navalny and Moscow opposition politician Lyubov Sobol for being “foreign agents” shows the limits of smart voting perfectly well.

On the other hand, while the Kremlin had a much tighter grip on these elections than on the ones last year, this did not come without a price. It required farcical administrative tricks against opposition candidates, harsh repression in Moscow and shameless rigging reminiscent of the 2011 Duma election. For the sake of securing a desired outcome, the authorities ended up destroying many elements of the electoral façade that the political system is depending on. This can hardly be a long-term strategy. But for now, as long the opposition’s best answer to the ruthless project management of the Kremlin is more project management, it almost seems good enough.

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