Elections ahead – Part II

A week ago, I looked at regional electoral data to find out what these suggest about the electoral chances of United Russia in this year’s legislative election. I concluded that even with a popularity of under 30 percent nation-wide the party can preserve its two-thirds constitutional supermajority due to single-mandate districts with a first-past-the-post system and widespread election rigging. I added, however, that Alexey Navalny’s “smart voting” scheme risked upsetting this strategy, by forcing the authorities either to make concessions towards the parties of the “systemic” opposition or to commit significantly more egregious rigging, which in turn raises the risk of protests. Below I am taking a deeper dive into single-mandate districts and recount three stories from the past week that I think illustrate very well the concerns of the Kremlin. Bear with me, at the end of it Navalny will get another mention.  

Article 12 of the federal law 20-F3 of 2014 lays out the rules of the formation of 225 single-mandate districts for legislative elections. The Central Electoral Commission suggests district borders to the Duma, based on the number of registered voters, and the borders accepted by the Duma stay valid for ten years, in this case until 2025. Of course, redistricting is always an option, should the Duma withdraw the law, for instance, after a pandemic year that saw an exodus of residents from (mostly pro-opposition) cities. Or, in practice, whenever it is convenient for the ruling party whose constitutional supermajority heavily depends on these districts.

The law establishes some rules for redistricting: the districts need to encompass roughly equal numbers of voters, but every federal subject of Russia needs to have at least one district. There are fixed rules for situations, in which there are too many or too few districts left to draw for the number of federal subjects still to be divided into districts, and there are some provisions against excessive gerrymandering. Nonetheless, there is some room to redraw district boundaries in ways that would benefit the ruling party.

But let’s assume for a moment that single-mandate districts stay roughly the same as they were in 2016. As I mentioned in a previous blog, considering the 2020 regional elections and the constitutional plebiscite as an indication of the amount of rigging the authorities seem to think they may get away with in 2021, and considering United Russia’s electoral rating at the end of 2020, the party’s constitutional supermajority likely hinges on its not losing more than 13-18 single-mandate districts relative to the 203 it won in 2016. Five years ago, the party won 88 of these districts by taking less than 45 percent of the vote. “Smart voting” can change this: it would be unlikely, even in the best-case scenario, for all 88 districts to go to opposition candidates. But smart voting does not need to work in all districts. It only needs to work in enough to make it very difficult to rig the results in United Russia’s favour, and very obvious when it happens.

How can you lose? Downtown

Of Moscow’s fifteen districts in 2016 United Russia candidates won seven with less than 35 percent of the vote. Gennady Onishchenko, the former head of the Rospotrebnadzor whom many may remember for his bans on Georgian and Moldovan wines and Belarusian dairy, won a little over 25 percent of the vote. We find four such districts in St. Petersburg, among them the one won by Vitaly Milonov, the original initiator of “gay propaganda” legislation. The two agglomerations have fourteen additional SMDs (most of them in the Moscow Oblast), and while United Russia is significantly more entrenched here than in the two cities proper, given the turbulent political agenda of recent years, it is not entirely unlikely that smart voting could work in one or two of them. One caveat here is that Moscow and the Moscow Region seem best positioned to vaccinate their residents in large enough numbers for life to return more or less to normal before the election, which may help the ruling party. (According to a recent study by the St. Petersburg Politics think tank, only residents of remote regions with extractive industries – Sakhalin, Chukotka and the Nenets Autonomous Okrug – have the same degree of access to vaccines).

Regions, which experienced political upheaval in recent years may also be fertile ground for attacking United Russia candidates. The Khabarovsk Krai has two SMDs: in 2016 the since jailed Sergey Furgal of LDPR won one of them; the other one went to United Russia, but the governing party has been all but wiped out in the region in 2019. It is true that the LDPR’s image suffered when the party, instead of siding with protesters and Furgal, agreed to have another one of its politicians, Mikhail Degtyaryov, appointed governor last year, but it’s unlikely that this did much to help United Russia. Voters in other regions that elected opposition governors in 2018 – the Vladimir Oblast, the Republic of Khakassia and the Primorsky Krai (even though this election was annulled) – may also want to hold up a finger to United Russia. While five years ago the party’s position was quite strong in Vladimir, the region has since ousted a United Russia governor who was thought to be reasonably popular, and has been on the receiving end of the Moscow’s waste management reform. Last year’s municipal election was a miniature experiment in maintaining United Russia’s position in the municipal council despite the party’s falling popularity: acting on the initiative of the ruling party the council decided to switch from a mixed to a purely majoritarian electoral system with 25 first-past-the-post electoral districts. As a result, United Russia took all the seats; opposition parties set up an “alternative municipal council”. These four regions have eight SMDs between them.

Environmental issues have triggered the most resilient protest movements in recent years in the regions; in fact, as I argued before, many of these had to do with poor local governance. However, some of these issues were resolved, while others did not become explicitly political. Several protest movements erupted over insufficient or unjustifiably curbed self-governance, but in ethnic republics, especially in the North Caucasus clan-based voting and massive rigging usually make United Russia a shoo-in in these regions. Smart voting might still make a difference in regions that are misgoverned – e.g. the Chelyabinsk Oblast with its five SMDs with fairly lacklustre United Russia victories in 2016 and recent party infighting (more on this below), or Omsk – the city where Navalny was treated before his evacuation to Germany – where Viktor Shreider, a former mayor defeated his communist opponent in 2016 by a hair’s breadth (31 vs. 30 percent), and which, like Chelyabinsk, experienced a particularly high death toll last year (although it is unclear to what degree Russians blame the ruling party for these figures). Or take cities with increasingly vibrant opposition activity, such as Novosibirsk or Tomsk. The two regions have six SMDs between them, all held by United Russia, including the ones containing the two cities where smart voting has been tried and worked.

This list is not exhaustive, of course (I haven’t talked about Yekaterinburg, another major city with independent-minded politics, for instance). But if smart voting makes a difference in only half of the thirty-odd SMDs that I have listed above, there’s a good chance that United Russia’s constitutional supermajority is gone. Or at least, that massive and blatant rigging is required to maintain it.

Three stories on my radar

One of the main stories of the past week, before Navalny’s arrest took over the agenda, was the resignation of Sardana Avksentieva, the popular mayor of Yakutsk, who was elected in 2018 as an opposition candidate and while she did not turn against United Russia, she took several steps reminiscent of Khabarovsk’s Sergey Furgal, and in 2020 she opposed Putin’s constitutional reform, (though she made it clear that she did not oppose the “zeroing” of Putin’s presidential terms). Avksentieva officially resigned due to medical reasons, but it seemed quite likely that someone – either Yakutia’s governor or someone above him – actually forced her to do so. According to Ilya Paimushkin, a former aide to the mayor, one of the reasons why Avksentieva may have been pressured to leave was anxiety about the Duma election in Yakutia. Gossip in Telegram channels pointed at United Russia’s popularity in Yakutia falling faster than in neighbouring regions. Whether or not any of this is true, it tells a lot about election-related insecurities in the governing party and in the Kremlin. It is true that the region delivered the least enthusiastic support for Putin in the 2018 presidential election (64 percent), but it is far from a “protest region”. In 2018 its United Russia governor won 71 percent in the gubernatorial election and in 2016 United Russia got 48 percent of the vote, only slightly below its average nation-wide electoral rating. The republic’s SMD went to the candidate of A Just Russia, but United Russia did not have a candidate in this district.

In short, Yakutia seemed perfectly winnable from United Russia’s point of view. If decision-makers in Moscow still thought that Avksentieva was too much of a risk, this likely indicates the degree to which the governing party intends to rely on administrative resources and rigging in the Duma elections. If the mayor was forced to resign, but the pressure originated elsewhere – e.g. in the regional government that sought to replace her with its own person – then the story is likely a telling example of how the insecurities of the federal elite allow regional power brokers to push their own agendas against anyone who stray even a little bit away from an established orthodoxy.

Another story that caught my attention was coming out of the Chelyabinsk Oblast where two incumbent Duma deputies from United Russia, Andrei Baryshev and Oleg Kolesnikov are rumoured to consider running with the support of the liberal Yabloko party, in case their party were to decide to put someone else forward. Baryshev is a former local power broker who fell out with the new Chelyabinsk mayor last year and faces competition from a younger generation of United Russia politicians (yes, they exist). Kolesnikov’s situation seems to be stronger, according to Znak’s article: it looks like he would simply like to remind his minders in Moscow of his usefulness.

Of course, it is far from certain that any of these two deputies are seriously considering running with another party – or that Yabloko wants them, for that matter. What they do show, however, is that United Russia candidates who run in these single-mandate districts are not, or not always, faceless dummies but very often local players with their own interests and grievances, which can be exploited in a tight electoral campaign and turned to the advantage of those trying to unseat United Russia candidates.

This brings me to the third story: apparently United Russia sources are telling the press that they are afraid that Navalny’s team might “hack” or otherwise unduly influence the party’s primaries that are held to lend a semblance of legitimacy to the selection of candidates (and to resolve internal conflicts before the campaign). According to these anonymous sources Navalny’s goal is to promote “weak candidates”. It is unclear whether those spreading these fairly implausible rumours are trying to assign blame, in advance, for the poor electoral performance of certain candidates (remember, the Kremlin will know the actual numbers), or are trying to discredit candidates who they fear might turn rogue if they are not selected. Either way, Navalny and his team are talked about, which is probably the best thing they can hope for from the ruling party. As Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s chief of staff put it: “Let them panic!”

Risk assessment

Which brings me to the last point, a couple of words on Navalny’s return to Russia and his subsequent arrest. The one thing that is clear from the arrest, the farcical trial in the kangaroo court that followed and the ridiculous ways in which the authorities tried to derail his return, is that the Kremlin is much more afraid of his movement than he and his associates are of the Kremlin. Some, like Tatiana Stanovaya, have pointed out the growing clout of the security services in shaping the strategic thinking and decisions of the political elite. This certainly seems true. But Putin also remains a political actor with a sharp sense of the political risks that he faces and a fairly well-informed idea of how these risks are expected to change in the future. Earlier this year someone, somewhere decided that it was less risky to murder Navalny than to let him live. The botched poisoning and the international exposure probably changed this calculation somewhat, but it’s unclear by how much. Putting Navalny behind bars for 30 days suggests that the Kremlin is evaluating the situation and will take a decision on what happens to Navalny once it understands the risks better.

Navalny’s campaign has played an important role in changing the conversation in regions beyond Moscow, built durable political organizations and motivated people to rise up, speak up, and vote against the status quo when it is bad for them. Will they take to the streets for Navalny himself? The Kremlin’s bet is that they won’t – and if the bet pays off, this may also change the calculations regarding the Duma election. We shall see.

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