Russian Elections: After the Results, the System Craves for a Reset

A proper analysis of the outcome of Russia’s September 13 regional elections constitutes a difficult task, as the results are of an ambiguous message. If one wants to acclaim it as a victory of the non-systemic, anti-Putinist forces, the claim won’t be false. By the same token, Medvedev—the head of the incumbent United Russia party—was not far from the truth either when he stated that his party ‘performed successfully’. But, as always, the devil is in the details. If careful eyes want to examine the results, they would appear as a failure for both the governing ‘United Russia’ party (YeR~ EPP|ECR|ID) and its national adversaries.

Obviously, it is possible to renounce the reality completely, as for instance the head of the Central Electoral Commission, Ella Pamfilova. She noted that they ‘witnessed a very low number of violations’ during the elections. Conversely, it is enough to look at some of the reports compiled by electoral monitors such as Golos or Nablyudatelyi Peterburga to acknowledge that there was not a single region free of electoral violations. We reported about some of the violations of electoral integrity on our live blog covering the elections.

Based on preliminary analysis provided by Russian statistician Sergey Shpilkin, it is striking that—according to the official results—in the regions of Krasnodar Krai and Tambov the incumbent regional heads won more than 80% of the votes. In a half of the polling stations, more than 80% of the voters cast a ballot for the governors. Such a strong result gives the local leaders a very strong mandate, stronger than was given to Putin in 2018.

The key to the extraordinary support might lie in the huge results discrepancy between the results arriving from Krasnodar city polling stations and those outside of the city. In the case of the city, roughly 60% of the voters supported the incumbent, while in other stations the rate was higher by 20-30 %. The voting process in Krasnodar city was monitored by observers, while peripheral booths were not monitored that cautiously.

United Russia as a liability

Given these circumstances, there was no surprising outcome on the gubernatorial level. In all 17 races, the incumbent heads—who were either United Russia’s members or somehow supported by the ruling party—have convincingly won with vote shares stretching from modest 56% in the region of Smolensk to astonishing 83% in the region of Tatarstan. It is an open question to what extent these victories would be viable without violations.

On the surface, the most visible change for 2020 elections was the novel procedure of early voting that extended the voting time from one day up to three. As the data shows, in the majority of gubernatorial races, votes from the early voting constituted more than half of the total votes—in Jewish Autonomous Oblast that number reached a record-high proportion of 79,52 %. 

Election results of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, as claimed by the officials

However, on the lower level, the governing United Russia did not perform as splendidly. In regards to the elections to regional parliaments, the ruling party experienced a significant drop in support. In the region of Komi Republic the decrease is estimated to be the most substantial one—from 58% in 2015 down to 29% in 2020. It does not, however, mean that the governing United Russia party has lost a majority in every single regional parliament. Due to the fact that in the majority of regions the regional deputies are elected by a parallel system—which features elements of both proportional and a majoritarian first-past-the-post system—the position is stable.

At least for now, since the plummeting of the United Russia’s rating has forced its member politicians to start a necessary rebranding. Presidnt Vladimir Putin is aware of the development, as he distances himself from his own party and registered in the 2018 presidential elections as an independent. In the light of the upcoming nation-wide parliament elections, some serious changes must be done in order to avoid the fate of a sinking ship as more Russians perceive the United Russia as a culprit of economic stagnation and internal shortcomings.

“Smart voting” and its discontents

Meanwhile, the anti-Putinist opposition had triumphant entries into several city councils. In the Siberian city of Tomsk, two candidates affiliated with the now-poisoned Alexei Navalny made it into the local legislature. Tomsk is the same city where Navalny was conducting his investigation on corruption just before he was poisoned. The Tomsk branch of the ruling United Russia party lost its majority as the support for them has declined from more than 50% down to 24%. In Novosibirsk, Russia’s third largest city, another Navalny’s acquaintance, Sergey Boyko, was elected as a new city council representative. Additionally, opposition candidates from Yabloko (RE|G/EFA) and other entities with anti-regime agenda have also become deputies on various levels.

The vast majority of them were endorsed by the ‘Smart Voting’ mechanism, created by Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. The modus operandi is simple: based on your place of residency, Navalny’s team recommends you a candidate with the biggest likelihood of overtaking the mandate from the United Russia party. It concentrates anti-regime votes on one figure and a certain alternative candidate, which prevents a potential dispersion of voters.

The tool actually brought good results—with a disclaimer though. ‘Smart Voting’, contributes only in the circumstances when candidates have a real chance to compete with the incumbent on even terms. In other words, those who are recognised locally. And, needless to say, the Smart Voting has to have at least someone to endorse that, given Russia’s electoral law, is not that obvious.

When it comes to the gubernatorial races, the authorities barred any significant competitors from participation. In Arkhangelsk region, where the anti-regime forces gathered around one of the leaders of local protest, the candidate was simply not allowed to be present on a ballot due to the invalid signatures in his registration documentation. ‘Smart Voting’ therefore might mess up some of the authorities’ plans, but it doesn’t constitute a cheat code able to bypass the rigged system. 

Election results of Arkhangelsk, as claimed by the officials

A breakthrough for new parties

What might be perceived as the most important feature of these elections—and which at the same time stayed under the radar of punditry—is the success of certain brand-new parties. As their appearance coincided with each other, it remains a debatable subject whether they all are Kremlin’s projects in order to weaken the protest vote, a ploy which has been used many times in contemporary Russia.

All of these parties operate within different voter registers and address seperate voters’ needs. The pro-environmental Green Alternative (Zelenaya Alternativa , G/EFA), present on the ballot in two regions, Komi Republic and Chelyabinsk oblast, got 10% and 5% respectively and introduced their candidates into regional assemblies. The choice of these regions isn’t random: the areas have particular environmental issues, while the popularity of such agenda is growing. 

The second party, For Truth (Za Pravdu, *), established by writer Zakhar Prilepin, passed the 5% threshold in the region of Ryazan and won two seats in the regional assembly. Due to the political convictions of Prilepin—he is notable for forming the pro-separatist regiment in Donbas and former membership in a radical National-Bolshevik party—it might be expected that the party will aim to gather the votes from the extremely right (and left) leaning Russians and those who perceive the Kremlin-led foreign policy as not revanchist enough. It is an old story. In the early 2000’s, a nationalistic party Fatherland (Rodina) was formed in order to weaken the anti-government opposition.

Lastly, the most successful one—and the most enigmatic at once—was the New People party (Novyie Lyudi , *), which managed to elect its members to four regional parliaments. It is yet to be determined whether their page-long programme, consisting of mainly pro-business and anti-bureaucratic slogans, played a role in their success. One can assume that the party’s high result was due to the aggressive campaigning in the public sphere—banners and leaflets across the country—and its name itself that presupposes some kind of refreshment. The change-yearning electorate is always present.

The system craves for a reset

All three of them were granted an upper hand in terms of the upcoming 2021 parliamentary elections. Due to the fact that they have at least one representative in a regional assembly, there’s no need for them to collect the signatures in order to register as a participant in the race. Their presence on a ballot, paradoxically, can increase the share of the State Duma’s seats for the United Russia as votes casted for many different options diffuse the anti-Kremlin vote.

To sum up, a real acid test is scheduled for national parliamentary elections in 2021—and it concerns all the aforementioned parties, the Sept 13’s regional races were just a prelude. Based on the latter, one can notice that there’s a growing need for some sort of a reset within Russian political party system once the main pillar of it, the governing United Russia party, is slowly corroding. The emergence of three new parties might be a signal of renewal. 

Currently the authorities are able to maintain the system as it is by vote-rigging in favor of the United Russia party, but it more and more resembles an artificial life support. Electoral fraud takes loads of resources and might lead to a moment when it becomes visible that the emperor has no clothes.

There is also the looming question of the leadership of the Kremlin-friendly ‘opposition’ parliamentary parties—the age of both KPRF’s (~ GUE/NGL) Zyuganov and LDPR’s (~NI) Zhirinovski raises questions about the future change of the parties’ heads. In the present form, neither KPRF nor LDPR is able to capture a new electorate group. And Prilepin’s For Truth party waits just around the corner to conquer a part of their electorate.

As for the non-systemic and Kremlin-critical opposition, it would take much more than ‘Smart Voting’ to appear on the national level. The absence of Navalny—due to his undergoing treatment in Germany—clearly does not play in favor of it. On the other hand, to expect any nation-wide Navalny-linked entity in an official electoral ballot is a naivety, as the Central Electoral Commision won’t let it happen. A democratic façade will be further orchestrated by the existing parliamentary parties and those who took off recently. Still, it is a question to what extent the new players are controllable by the Kremlin and whether they will be able to replace the old equivalents.

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