A mirror, a rehearsal, a vote

The 2021 Duma election started exactly a week ago and ended with a result that most people expected and feared: a renewed United Russia supermajority, propped up by fraud, intimidation and a toolbox of tricks. The election will no doubt prompt a lot of analysis, especially once the dust clears. These five main takeaways are my initial thoughts.

1. Falsifications were reminiscent of earlier elections, but were uniquely significant

Both the amount and the shockingly open nature of falsification called into mind the 2011 election. According to data analyst Sergey Shpilkin, 13.7 million votes – roughly half of United Russia’s official tally in the proportional branch of the voting system – were likely falsified. This is a lot, and when it comes to legislative elections, unprecedented. But it is not vastly higher than estimates for 2011 and 2016 (12 million).

One of the circumstances that make these falsifications stand out is that United Russia’s position is arguably worse than it was in 2016 or even in 2011. Compared to the year when anger over the Putin-Medvedev “castling” risked sweeping the parliamentary majority of the ruling party away, the unpopularity of United Russia is now much deeper rooted, not to mention the ten additional years that it spent in power. Without falsifications, United Russia’s result, expressed in percentage, would likely have been in the lower thirties.

A second important circumstance is that compared to 2011, the many changes to electoral legislation – mostly the introduction of single-mandate districts (SMDs), electronic voting, multi-day voting, the absence of publicly available camera feeds – as well as a wider crackdown on protests and dissent before the election – likely allowed the Kremlin to get significantly more out of a comparable level of fraud, with less risk. Even as citizens reported to Golos more than 5,000 instances of likely violations, most fraud, particularly in regions where observers had less access to polling stations, probably went unreported. Falsifications could be spread out over several days and there was less need to fear protests.

This likely also made fraud less concerted, if not by much. The overwhelming majority of the regions where United Russia officially had a result over 50 percent were listed by Golos as regions with a high risk or rich tradition of falsifications. At the same time, it is remarkable that the Kremlin did not or could not pressure more votes out of so-called “electoral sultanates” – most of them autonomous republics with a rich history of electoral fraud and high-turnout, high-United Russia precincts. Only in three of these regions – Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Tuva) was United Russia’s officially registered support higher than in 2016. The extra votes came from other regions.

However, as Shpilkin himself noted, the fraud pattern of this election was different from what was observed in the constitutional plebiscite of 2020 where more than 20 million votes could have been falsified and analysts suspected fraud in a whopping two-thirds of polling stations. This reflects that the role of a legislative election in a personalized autocracy is different from the role of presidential elections and votes on presidential initiatives – and so are the goals set by political operatives. For this election the goal was to have the “right” result at right places, not to project an overwhelming wave of support. (Not to mention that, as Tatiana Stanovaya pointed out, United Russia has both supporters and opponents in the political elite, which means that there is not always a united front behind the party, which, at least so far, has been more difficult to imagine in a presidential election).

At the same time, we have seen episodes reminiscent of 2018, when, after the gubernatorial election of the Maritime Territory, local authorities scrambled to change the results in the last minute, when it became obvious that the incumbent governor’s communist challenger was winning. Then this led to a scandal and the cancellation of the election. It also highlighted the role of regional elites in election rigging, as well as the growing lack of clarity about political agency and responsibility in Russia. This time we have seen such scenes in Moscow where results from the city’s online voting – an untransparent novelty, highly prone to coercion and fraud – were first delayed and then they overturned what seemed to be opposition victories in 12 of the city’s 18 SMDs. The Communist Party refused to recognize these results. The Moscow vote is, however, incomparably more significant than the 2018 vote in Primorye, due to the clear responsibility of Moscow mayor Sergey Sobyanin. First, the capital was the only region where voters did not use Gosuslugi, Russia’s public services portal to vote, but Mos.ru, the city’s own platform. Second, an opposition victory in Moscow, which seemed likely, would almost certainly have been an embarrassment for the mayor, one of the most influential politicians in the country; a “victory” for what is considered to be “Sobyanin’s list”, on the other hand, will likely strengthen his role in the Duma. If he pulls it off, that is – but it looks like that even in that case he will have paid a considerable price for this.

2. A stricter control over data and online content is here to stay

This was an overwhelming, defining theme of the election. The noticeable shift in the willingness (and perhaps the capabilities) of the authorities to block access to inconvenient data, whatever it takes – be it Smart Voting recommendations, Navalny videos, incriminating material, or election data used by independent analysts – will have consequences far beyond the election.

Nonetheless, while the level of these restrictions is unprecedented, this only represents the latest step in a process that has been going on for much longer, and included both the non-publication or manipulation of statistics and a crackdown on marketplaces selling leaked data, itself a consequence of Russia’s burgeoning digital surveillance industry. And there is nothing to indicate that following the election, the authorities will take a step back and ease this control. If anything, we are seeing the opposite: this week, the Prosecution demanded to block every website redistributing content from Team Navalny, while Roskomnadzor announced a register of social media platforms, no doubt with the intention to tighten control over them.

Plans to further extend online voting – admittedly the dodgiest part of this election – are another case in point. While a parliamentary vote is indeed very different from a presidential election (in its structure, objectives, benchmarks of success for the Kremlin, etc.), in some of their elements, this campaign and the vote were clearly a rehearsal for 2024.

Online voting, which the Kremlin suggested expanding to the whole territory of the country this week, is the shape of things to come: a magic wand to turn a dwindling support into success with the press of a button. Yes, fraud in online voting can be shown through a painstaking deconstruction of the blockchain, as Maxim Katz did in Moscow. But there needn’t even be that much fraud. Online voting, where people have no guarantee that their votes will not be associated with their identity, and where they cannot be sure that these records will not leak, also works in much the same way as the “Navalny leaks” did: it can intimidate voters enough so that many of them will pre-emptively vote for whoever they think the “safe” candidate is.

3. It is too early to say if Smart Voting was a success

If one only looks at the official results, Smart Voting had very limited success. Out of the 225 single-mandate candidates endorsed by the initiative, only 14 won, and reportedly at least four of them had an understanding with local authorities so their victory was a done deal (as I also pointed out earlier, the Kremlin often relies on these agreements with systemic opposition parties). However, one should consider pre-online voting results in Moscow, which would add 12 more successes to this tally, a more robust win.

Admittedly, Smart Voting was more successful in cities where information flows (furiously blocked by the Kremlin) worked better and where the presence of Navalny’s local offices had made an impact before they were closed; it also worked better in protest regions (e.g. the Komi Republic, or the Nenets Autonomous District), depressed regions (e.g. Samara and Omsk), or where United Russia’s popularity is traditionally low (e.g. Yaroslavl).

But there are subtler indicators: in the Kirov Region United Russia officially won both SMDs, but the party’s list received so few votes, that the infamous Maria Butina, accused of election meddling in the US, who later became a paid provocateur of the RT television network, missed out on a mandate. Butina and her foreign assets were the subject of one of Team Navalny’s pre-election videos, which may have played a role in this result. Or take the victory of the communist Sergey Kazankov in the Republic of Mari El whose governor was also the subject of one of Navalny’s videos published shortly before the election.

In several regions, Smart Voting suggested voting for candidates who then did not end up as the strongest opposition candidate. This may partly be due to a lack of data on candidates’ support in each region. At the same time, the candidates outperforming Smart Voting endorsees were typically Communist Party politicians (e.g. in Yakutia or the Ryazan Region). One could argue that while the information about endorsements likely did not reach a considerable number of voters in each district, the idea of voting for the candidate of what seems to be the strongest opposition party took roots (with or without Navalny) and helped the KPRF. Reports that the Liberal Democrats and the Fair Russia party were on the verge of falling short of the parliamentary threshold and needed a lift from the authorities, also point at this. Of course, it is difficult to separate this effect from the effect of other phenomena, e.g. the KPRF’s grassroots organizing or outrage over the disqualification of the relatively popular Pavel Grudinin.

However, I would urge everyone to look beyond even this more nuanced analysis. Whether or not Smart Voting was successful will not be decided only by the (official) election result, unless one thinks that United Russia’s constitutional supermajority was not a foregone conclusion of the election. I think it was; and thus, the question was what price the authorities would have to pay for this.

Based on previous experience, Smart Voting has impacted politics in three ways. First, it raises the price of a (super)majority for the authorities (and as it turned out, sometimes this price is too high). Second, it can prompt systemic politicians to change their view on their own legitimacy and regard it as a bottom-up, not a top-down flow of power. Examples of this were the former Khabarovsk governor Sergey Furgal (admittedly the Ur-example of Smart Voting) and some of the Moscow Municipal Council deputies elected in 2019. Third, it provides incentives to elected officials to explore and use the rights and the opportunities that come the positions obtained, e.g. accessing and publicizing budget planning documents. Whether or not Smart Voting will prompt any of this in the Duma or at any other level, is open at this point.

At the same time, it is very likely that right away, there will be a heated, and not wholly rational debate between various opposition groups, supporters, personalities on whether Smart Voting made sense, and the Kremlin will almost certainly be delighted about it.

4. It may be more difficult to keep the systemic opposition on a tight leash

The KPRF’s result as clearly the most significant – and in some of its constituent parts, genuine – opposition force is a potentially significant development. Quite like Grudinin in 2018, the communists probably won a little too many votes for the Kremlin’s liking: especially Moscow, where the party likely defeated United Russia (before online votes were added) must have been a concerning development. Whether or not this will re-energize the KPRF, however, will depend on how the result is interpreted within the party, especially in the context of its upcoming leadership change.

While the KPRF will now have some young and energetic deputies in the Duma (e.g. Oleg Mikhailov from the Komi Republic), the Kremlin’s machinations likely prevented some more radical or open-minded communists, such as Nikolay Bondarenko, a young tech-savvy candidate in the Saratov Region, or Valery Rashkin and Mikhail Lobanov in Moscow, from winning their districts (though Rashkin will remain a Duma deputy). Moscow communists also want the party to protest rigging more seriously.

It is likely is that the race between those who want the KPRF to change into a more genuine opposition outfit and Zyuganov’s old guard has just become more open, and that will worry the Kremlin. But “convincing” the 77-year-old Zyuganov to stay on as party leader for now might cause a revolt in the party.  

As regards upstarts, the Kremlin predictably played it safe, and the entry of the New People party – but not others – to the Duma is likely part of this safe play, to catch at least part of the votes of those who are fed up with United Russia but are not ready to risk their safety and livelihood by supporting a Navalny-adjacent outfit. The party’s focus on regional development also helps to lift an inconvenient, sprawling, and potentially explosive issue into the arena of systemic politics. There is evidence suggesting that both New People and the Greens – a party considered to be a Presidential Administration project – received a boost before and during the election from the authorities, in the media as well as in some polling stations in Dagestan and Tuva where people inexplicably almost all “voted” for these parties.

Just like the KPRF, if it is able to retain genuine support, New People can have the biggest impact on politics if it turns out to be a catalyst of a split in the political and business elite. Unlike LDPR and SR, which may very well be past their sell-by date, New People is, at this point, an ascending project that elites opposing United Russia can invest in, and perhaps so are the communists.

5. First-past-the-post is highly distortive and as important for United Russia as fraud

While electoral fraud was shocking and likely unprecedented, the election again showed how highly distorting the first-past-the-post, majoritarian voting system in single-mandate districts is, even without considering falsifications. According to the official result, United Russia won a number of SMDs comparable to 2016 (198 vs 203) with a much weaker support overall. Even in 2016, this branch of the system, in which a mere plurality of the vote is enough to win a mandate, was highly unfair: the ruling party took 90 percent of these seats with (officially) 50 percent of the vote; but now we saw results that can only be described as ludicrous, such as United Russia candidate Pavel Simigin winning the Khabarovsk Territory’s Komsomolsk electoral district with a mere 18% of the vote, simply because the opposition vote was highly fragmented.

And there are many such districts, more than five years ago: in 2016 the ruling party won four districts with less than 30 percent of the vote. This year it (officially) won thirteen. Keep in mind that this does not include any of the single-mandate districts in Moscow where online voting gave an enormous (and likely fraudulent) margin to United Russia candidates. In several districts “spoiler candidates” – with names resembling or almost identical to a genuine opposition candidate – made sure to fragment the vote even further. 

Some of these very weak victories occurred in so-called protest regions, which have seen increased local political and civil activity in recent years, typically over local issues: the Arkhangelsk Region where a successful protest movement took place against the Shiyes landfill; the Tomsk Region where Navalny was poisoned and where Smart Voting and grassroots opposition activity successfully reduced United Russia to a minority in the city council; the Khabarovsk Territory that saw some of the largest protests of the past five years, etc. This is partly because cities and regions considered to be risky usually see less outright fraud (though they are not immune to other machinations, as Khabarovsk’s example shows). But it is still questionable whether having United Russia win in these regions with very weak support will lead to stability in the longer term or, on the contrary, will spur opposition. If it does not, the Kremlin will certainly take note.

In conclusion, while this could hardly be called an election in the classical sense, the vote and the campaign nonetheless gave a snapshot of Russia today: of the rigging and repression, which perhaps isn’t or isn’t always coordinated, but is certainly increasingly open and pervasive; of the boundaries of repression and surveillance that are noticeably and alarmingly shifting; but also of the opportunities that remain, and have opened up, for the opposition, systemic or not.

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