Russia held gubernatorial, regional legislative and municipal elections on Sunday, 13 September. While traditionally the day was called a “single day of voting”, it actually took place over three days, in line with amendments to electoral legislation adopted earlier this year. I have analyzed the significance of these elections for the Institute of Modern Russia last week. The following is a short list of the lessons learned now that preliminary results have been announced.
Lesson #1: the authorities will do what it takes to prevent competitive gubernatorial elections. As I suspected – and this was only logical, really – the authorities seem to have used whatever tricks they could to prevent second rounds in any of the 18 direct gubernatorial elections. This has been a consistent policy since the surprise electoral upsets in 2018 and even more so now that the arrest of Sergey Furgal, one of the “systemic” opposition candidates who were elected in 2018, triggered unexpected protests in Khabarovsk. This required a signficant amount of administrative meddling: disqualification of strong opposition candidates (e.g. a representative of the Shiyes protest movement in the Arkhangelsk region), bribes – such as offering popular candidates from the systemit opposition a nomination to the Federation Council, etc. Even so, before the elections the Russian press and Telegram channels were full of speculation about second rounds in so-called “protest regions” such as the above mentioned Arkhangelsk region, the politically restive Irkutsk region or the Jewish Autonomous District bordering the Khabarovsk territory. Yet, all incumbents were reelected with comfortable margins, according to the official results. Accusations of corruption, published days before the election, did not prevent Rustam Minnikhanov, the president of Tatarstan, from scoring more than 85 percent of the vote – officially.
Lesson #2: early voting has probably allowed massive rigging that went largely unnoticed. Similarly to the constitutional referendum in June and July, which took place over a week and according to experts was likely the single most rigged vote in Russia’s post-Soviet history, exteneded early voting combined with all sorts of restrictions affecting independent observers, seems to have helped United Russia. Meduza points at data from Tambov and Voronezh suggesting that voters who cast their votes on 11 and 12 September were significantly more likely to vote for United Russia. Massive early voting in Tatarstan and the Jewish Autonomous District probably helped the incumbent governors of these regions to register a sweeping victory. In addition, there were plenty of reports of more “traditional” ways of falsification and rigging on election day. As I warned last month, the Kremlin will likely use similar tactics in future elections as the authorities struggle to produce desirable electoral outcomes from a shrinking popular support. Either way, Sunday’s elections will further erode the “electoral legitimacy” that Russia’s current political system is based on. But this the Kremlin can still accept if it does not lead to protests; and protests have so far been triggered by specific issues – even in Furgal’s case – and not dodgy elections.
Lesson #3: smart voting works, even with Navalny poisoned. His poisoning may not have triggered mass protests across Russia, but Navalny’s smart voting system delivered tangible results in two important cities: Novosibirsk, where the head of his local office was elected to the city council, and Tomsk where candidates supported by smart voting won 16 of 27 single-mandate seats (of a total of 37 seats in the city council). United Russia lost its majority in both cities, and while in Novosibirsk the party might still find enough support to keep governing Russia’s third largest city, the election of five candidates supported by Navalny’s local campaign office is certainly a great result. It has to be added that it was in these two cities that Navalny had made videos about the corruption of local officials shortly before he was poisoned (in Tomsk). The Kremlin has still not been able to come up with any effective answer to smart voting. It’s not a surprise that United Russia now apparently does not support holding early legislative elections. The party has maintained majorities in all of the regional legislatures that were up for election on Sunday, but this was mainly due to the mixed electoral system designed to help it (and likely rigging). It needs time to make an effort to rebuild itself as the party of prime minister Mikhail Mishustin and the party that “defeated the coronavirus”.
Of course, as I warned last year after the early successes of smart voting, what these newly elected council members – most of them backed by “systemic opposition parties” – will do with their newfound popular legitimacy and opportunities, will matter a lot. Furgal’s crowd-pleasing activities as the governor of the Khabarovsk territory serve as an example. His arrest serves as a warning.
Lesson #4: look out for new “systemic” parties. It now seems that three parties, registered this year, will have the right to run in next year’s Duma election without gathering signatures (a difficult, if not impossible endeavor) as they have entered at least one regional legislature. “New People”, a party targeting young, liberal, urban voters, was the most successful, entering four regional legislatures, while the “For Truth” party, led by the nationalist writer Zakhar Prilepin and the Green Alternative party will be represented in one each. The goal in all three cases seems to be obvious. New People is supposed to dampen the protest mood in cities; For Truth is supposed to court disgruntled nationalists who might otherwise be tempted to cast their protest vote for the Liberal Democratic Party; and the Green Alternative is supposed to take the wind out of the sails of environmentally conscious protest movements, which have become a fixture of Russian politics in the past two years and represented a growing concern for the Kremlin due to their agility, perseverence and ability to absorb demands for a greater degree of self-rule.
More on these in the coming days.