Look closely: the districts to watch in Russia’s elections

This week from Friday to Sunday, as Russians head to the polls, United Russia’s supermajority (and the amount of falsification necessary to maintain it) will ultimately depend on how the party fares in single-mandate districts. These are the ones worth looking at more closely.

In 2016 United Russia won 203 of 225 SMDs – that is, more than 90 percent – with only around 50 percent of the vote, due to the first-past-the-post system, which rewards a divided opposition.

United Russia won more than half of these districts with less than 50% of the vote. In Moscow & St. Petersburg there were districts (e.g. Moscow-Tushino or St. Petersburg-West) where the party’s candidate won with barely more than one-fourth of the vote. In most of the other SMDs systemic opposition candidates won because United Russia didn’t field a candidate (the KPRF won three districts, in which the ruling party did, but SR and LDPR only won SMDs “gifted” to the party). This year there are significantly less such districts, but this of course does not mean that United Russia will win the same number or more SMDs.

In a study published in August, Alexander Kynev and the Liberal Mission Foundation identified 50 SMDs where United Russia could lose. In 21 SMDs United Russia supports “weak” candidates or no one, and 29 SMDs are “competitive”.  The Center for Political Conjunctures issued a slightly different estimate, putting United Russia’s SMDs between 186 and 198 with KPRF scooping up more than half of the rest. It is worth pointing out at this point that even if the UR candidate loses in all these 50 SMDs (and thus win “only” 175), the party can still preserve its supermajority if it wins 125 proportional mandates. This would require it to score in the mid-40s (percentage-wise) in the proportional branch of the system, which is completely in the cards as long as opposition turnout is low while United Russia mobilization is high, including through administrative means (e.g. forcing state employees to turn out) and in so-called “electoral sultanates” (republics in the North Caucasus, the Volga Region, and Siberia where local elites ensure consistent high turnout and high United Russia votes in exchange for a deal with Moscow), and several “spoiler” parties score between 3-5 percent of the vote and thus remain outside of the Duma. Unsurprisingly, there are clear, targeted attempts to demobilize opposition voters and to promote smaller systemic parties.

Yet, as I laid out in August, SMDs count not only as one half of the electoral system, but also each on its own merit. They signal important shifts in voters’ mood, policy failures, and risks: every unexpected development is a potential crisis in waiting for the Kremlin.

The Platonic ideal of Smart Voting would of course be voters uniting behind one non-United Russa candidate and thus winning 100+ SMDs. Even in better times, this was unlikely to happen. But according to a new study on the effect of Smart Voting by Mikhail Turchenko and Grigory Golosov, in 2019-20 Smart Voting did add 5-7 percentage points to the tally of supported candidates in cities. Now let’s optimistically assume that this could be as high as 10 points, given the higher stakes in the Duma vote and the protest mood in the population. The chances are also higher in SMDs where there are more independent observers. Evidence suggests that the presence of these observers can have a significant impact on the legality of the vote and thus the result.

1. Districts that were close in 2016. In 2016 there were 11 SMDs where the official result was this close between the United Russia winner and the second-placed candidate: in Moscow, St. Petersburg, the Omsk Region, the Chelyabinsk Region (x2), Khakassia, the Arkhangelsk Region, the Novosibirsk Region, the Astrakhan Region and the occupied Sevastopol. In most of these districts the vote could be close again, though in some of them personalities have changed. In Moscow-Tushino (206) e.g. Dmitry Gudkov came second with Yabloko in 2016 but will not run now (Smart Voting suggests voting for the KPRF candidate). In St. Petersburg – Southeast (217) on the other hand Oksana Dmitrieva of the Party of Growth will be on the ballot again, and is also the SV-supported candidate.

2. Districts in the capitals. Altogether, at least a dozen SMDs are going to be worth following in the two capitals, including: Moscow-Kuntsevo (197) with a traditionally strong protest vote where the tv presenter Yevgeny Popov (also of Navalny corruption investigation (in)fame) will run and where KPRF candidate Mikhail Lobanov (also suggested by SV) runs a grassroots campaign; Moscow-Khorvino (207) where Lev Shlosberg of Yabloko was removed from the ballot and where SV suggests supporting the KPRF candidates, Ivan Ulyanchenko; Moscow-Chertanovo (210) where the nouvelle vague nationalist Roman Yuneman was disqualified and later endorsed his KPRF rival; Moscow-Babushkin (196) where Valery Rashkin, a “mild Navalnist” KPRF deputy is running (while a “double” of his, Valery Rashkin of Communists of Russia runs in his old district, nr. 199); Moscow-Lefortovo (208) where Maxim Shevchenko, the “systemic Navalnist” and Sergey Mitrokhin, one of the leaders of Yabloko are running; SMDs 198 & 205 that the Kremlin will “cede” to systemic candidates, but where several prominent opposition personalities are also on the ballot and have found it difficult to cooperate; and of course the aforementioned St. Petersburg Southeast (217) with three (almost) identical Boris Vishnevskys (a phenomenon not limited to the two capitals).  

3. Protest regions and opposition strongholds: The vote will give a sense of the impact that protest movements and political upheavals primarily in the past three years have made on electoral politics. Khakassia (35) is interesting partly because it was one of the regions to elect an opposition (KPRF) governor in 2018 – as an SMD it already produced a very tight result in 2016 – and also because it appears that United Russia’s election observers might be trained to keep silent about fraud. In Buryatia (9), a depleted region of the Far East that saw protests against election fraud and in support of Alexander Gabyshev, the “shaman who wants to exorcise Putin” in 2019, Sergey Zverev, a popular and rather flamboyant stylist is running for the Greens, along with Bair Tsyrenov, a young communist, who wanted to get United Russia banned as an extremist organization and who just happens to have “Bayar Tsydenov” as one of his rivals, just like in 2016. (Team Navalny suggests voting for Tsyrenov).  In another protest region, Khabarovsk, in SMD 70 the imprisoned Sergey Furgal’s son, Anton was removed from the ballot. Still, both here & in SMD 69 United Russia’s position is shaky. Even though Mikhail Degtyaryov, Furgal’s replacement is not exactly popular, this is mostly LDPR territory, even as Team Navalny supports a KPRF and a SR candidate. The Ulyanovsk Region, on the other hand is a KPRF stronghold where in 2016 Alexey Kurinny, a doctor and KPRF candidate – one of the communists who lent support to Navalny this year – bested UR in SMD 187. He is not running, but a gubernatorial election held on the same day may benefit the KPRF’s new candidate.

4. Mid-sized cities: In the past years, several mid-sized cities have become opposition or protest hot spots partly because of Navalny’s extended (and now frozen) regional network, partly for other reasons. The mismanaged pandemic and rising prices also hit the population of some of these cities the hardest. But the equation is not this simple, since apart from Moscow and St. Petersburg, cities are usually sliced up between SMDs and rural areas (where it is also easier to falsify the vote) are added to urban cores. Still, protest vote in certain cities may make a difference. Prominent among these cities is Yekaterinburg that saw the largest protest turnout apart from the two capitals in January this year and where United Russia runs a fairly timid campaign, somewhat reminiscent to Moscow in 2019.  Yet, one of the party’s celebrity candidates, Sergey Chepikov, a former athlete, is running here in SMD 170, which seems narrowly winnable after his main rival (from Fair Russia – For Truth) left the race. In other SMDs (e.g. 168/169) however, the ruling party may have a more difficult time.  Another city with significant numbers or protesters this year, Nizhny Novgorod, has recently been awash with money and high-profile visitors. This will likely help ruling party candidates running in its 4 SMDs, but it’s worth keeping an eye on the city. In Irkutsk, which has also seen strong opposition activities in recent years, KPRF candidates (who are also supported by Smart Voting) are well placed to do well, including in SMD 95, where the scions of local dynasties are running against each other. Smart Voting worked well in local elections last year in both Novosibirsk and Tomsk. In SMD 135 the communist Andrey Zhirnov who finished a close second in 2016 runs against Oleg Ivaninsky, a doctor who is also not very keen to display the United Russia party logo. United Russia’s position also appears to be weak in the industrial regions of Chelyabinsk and Samara. In SMD 191 SR deputy Valery Gartung, a close second in 2016 runs against Anton Ryzhy, a paediatrician. In SMD 193 LDPR came a close second five years ago, but this time they fielded a weaker candidate. In the Samara region, SMDs 159 and 162 could be interesting. In 162 Mikhail Matveev, a local KPRF heavyweight runs against Igor Stankevich, a veteran of the Afghanistan war. In 159 Leonid Kalashnikov, a seasoned KPRF deputy may win. Both are supported by Smart Voting.

5. Districts with high-profile YedRos: Electoral resources are usually focused on districts where major representants of the ruling party are running for office. Investigative reports have also focused on some of these individuals. Yet, it is unlikely that Alexey Gordeyev, the deputy speaker of the State Duma will lose his district (Voronezh-Pavlovsk, SMD 90), which is in a solidly pro-United Russia region. Oleg Valenchuk (Kirov-Kirovo-Chepetsk, SMD 106) may feel more heat, even though the main target of Team Navalny’s investigative video was not he, but Maria Butina, the convict-turned-media personality who runs in the region but on the party list. Team Navalny highlighted Kamchatka (SMD 45) where Irina Yarovaya, the initiator of much of Russia’s restrictive internet legislation is running. Meanwhile, an interesting fight is unfolding in the Saratov Region where Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin is running in SMD 163 and Nikolay Bondarenko, a firebrand KPRF politician is running in SMD 165, but clearly they are actually running against one another. Bondarenko has been on the verge of disqualification for months (and perhaps because of this his campaign has been rather muted in recent weeks). Still, eyes will be on how many votes the social media savvy young communist will be allowed to collect compared to Volodin.

6. Regions uniquely affected by important changes in electoral law, especially online voting, which will be held in seven regions: Moscow, the Rostov, Murmansk, Kursk, Yaroslavl and Nizhny Novgorod Regions and the occupied Sevastopol. Judging from the evolution of electoral legislation in recent years, there is almost certainly interest in the Kremlin to expand the newest amendments of the electoral law to future elections, especially to the 2024 presidential vote, should they prove useful for the authorities in the regions where they are tested. Many fear – and based on evidence from last year’s constitutional plebiscite, this year’s United Russia primaries and testimonies in the press, rightly so – that online voting is used by the authorities to make voting and vote counting even less transparent and the election even more coercive. In one of the regions where online voting will be possible – the Rostov Region – about 300,000 Russian citizens living in the occupied Donbas will also vote, most of them online. In future elections their number may be much higher.

7. Conservationists and activists: Further harbingers of future developments are those SMDs, in which local conservationists and rights activists are running. They are typically supported by Yabloko. I have mentioned the Arkhangelsk Region, where Oleg Mandrykin, a leader of the “Stop Shiyes” movement is running in SMD 72, which is a competitive district (and Mandrykin is supported by Smart Voting), but Kotlas, SMD 73 may be even more interesting, since here Alexander Kozenkov, another Shiyes activists is running against Elena Vtorgyna a supporter of the Shiyes landfill. Other such SMDs include: SMD 85 (Vologda), where Olga Domozhirova, the wife of a former SR politician and Navalny associate is running; SMD 92 (Ivanovo), featuring Sergey Rimsky, an ex-policeman who also supported Navalny (and now Smart Voting supports him); SMD 146 (Penza) where Yury Voblikov, another ecological activist is running for office; or SMD 177 (Tambov), where candidates include Vladimir Zhilkin, a rights defender and where Smart Voting has a history of success in local elections. While these are not all competitive districts and arguably these candidates are not always the strongest opponents of United Russia, it is going to be interesting to see how these movements translate into votes, especially as several local referenda may be coming up on environmental issues.

These are the districts, which I think merit special attention on and after September 19. I will be discussing the results in them after the vote. Until then, read another (two-part) article about the developments to look for, on CEPA’s website, and tune in to No Yardstick’s election night live discussion on Twitter at 2 PM EST (9 PM MSC), where I am going to try to place the election into the context of social and economic processes, policies and geopolitics, together with prominent experts and Russia watchers.

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