On Sunday, Russia holds regional elections. Russians will cast ballots in order to elect their municipal or regional representatives in around 9,000 electoral races across 83 regions, including 17 direct elections of regional governors.
Subnational races are far from being irrelevant—in 2018, in four out of 22 governor’s elections, the candidates from the incumbent United Russia (Yedinaya Rossiya, YeR~ EPP|ECR|ID) lost the election to the candidates of the systemic opposition, parliamentary parties that operate within the legal framework and conform to Putin-led regime. Moreover, one of the winners—Sergei Furgal from Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (Liberalno-demokraticheskaya partiya Rossii, LDPR~NI)—was recently removed from the office, which ignited a serious turmoil in the Russian Far East. In 2019, independent candidates were barred from running in the Moscow city council election. Consecutively, protests were sparked, resulting in the largest rallies in Moscow since the 2011-2013 protests. The authorities’ response, a broad crackdown, led to more than a thousand detainees.
Regional elections in Russia can be perceived as a mirror in which one can see a reflection of broader attitudes within Russia. The regional elections are not free from electoral fraud as stakes are high—and the federal centre isn’t eager to see an appearance of cracks in the top-down power mechanism. The Kremlin is constantly doctoring the electoral law in order to skew the political field on the federal or national level, and it does the same in provinces—using the hands of regional electoral commissions and its representatives.
The most constant feature of the Russian electoral system is, paradoxically, its volatility. All the procedures serve as a tool to achieve a comfortable result that is regarded as safe for the incumbent. On the federal level, that flexibility might be illustrated by the parliamentary elections to the State Duma, the lower house of the national parliament. In the most recent election in 2016, the authorities for instance decided to reinstate a parallel voting system in which half of the lower house in parliament is being elected by proportional representation from party lists, while the remaining 225 candidates are elected in single-member constituencies using the majoritarian first-past-the-post system.
The reform was introduced mainly due to United Russia’s popularity drop. As United Russia’s members possess necessary ‘administrative resources’, letting them to outmatch any opposition candidates in the electoral campaign, it is easier to win in single-mandate constituencies for them. And it worked out—United Russia managed to secure the majority in 203 out of 225 single-mandate districts in 2016. Interestingly, the parallel voting system was replaced by a proportional system in the 2000s in effort to ‘stabilise’ the political system. The same justification of ‘stabilisation’ was again used in 2016 when the authorities returned to the parallel system.
Transformations of electoral law do not exclude the regional elections. Getting rid of the direct elections of heads of regions in the 2000’s constituted a key element of Putin’s ‘vertical power’, creating a top-down rigid structure of power within Russia. In 2012, as a sign of liberalisation under Medvedev’s Presidential tenure in 2008-2012, they resumed the direct elections of heads of regions—but again, not in every region. Furthermore, governors are often replaced in the course of their tenures due to the Kremlin’s pressure or their personal flaws as officials. Such process is described as gubernatopad, ‘governor’s free-falling’.
Local municipalities are also a subject of changes. In Nizhny Novgorod, for instance, a city council is now being elected exclusively from single-mandate districts, although only five years ago it was done by parallel voting. Moreover, the number of deputies was cut down from 47 to 35, making the competition even more skewed. On top of that, a recent introduction of early voting in some regions—due to the COVID-19 pandemic—raises some concerns about the transparency of the voting as it is hard for independent observers to permanently track the activity of polling stations over a few days.
The registration procedures are of particular importance. When it comes to governor’s races, one particular procedure is also necessary to mention, the so-called ‘municipal filter’. In order to register as a candidate for regional elections, one needs to collect a fixed number of signatures given by deputies of municipal bodies—a threshold which varies between the regions. As the significant majority of representative bodies is constituted by members of the governing United Russia party, it is obviously tougher to get signatures from them for any opposition candidates. In the upcoming elections, the ‘municipal filter’ turned out to be an obstacle for a candidate in Arkhangelsk Oblast, who was one of the leaders of the Shiyes protests—a grassroot movement against the authorities’ plans to locate a landfill in Russia’s north. Although he collected the necessary amount of signatures, the electoral commision claimed that some of them were already put in support of another candidate, while every single deputy is able to support only one candidate.
Meanwhile, to run as a candidate in municipal elections, one needs to collect a certain per cent (it varies between the municipalities) of signatures of the voters in the constituency should a candidate want to be on a ballot. Even though the task is in itself hard for candidates without any backing political structures, it is not impossible and relatively much easier than collecting signatures from the representatives of the governing United Russia party. However, the electoral commissions across the country bar non-systemic opposition candidates on that stage, often claiming that the signatures are forged. Such was the case of Moscow City Council Elections 2019 when the numerous independent candidates were refused entry to the race.
To conclude, the registration procedures and the volatile nature of Russia’s electoral system remain serious obstacles and tools to skew the political field in favour of the governing United Russia party. As public opinion is mostly aware of electoral frauds in the course of Russian elections, one needs to take into account the peculiarities of electoral legislation as it is quite illustrative when assessing opinion polls and election results. On the other hand, bearing in mind the protests and other developments from recent years, the system might turn out to be not as bulletproof for the government as it may seem. Thus it might be expected to see some interesting outcomes in the upcoming days.