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Opposition’s Forlorn Hope? Tactical Voting in Tampered Russian ‘Elections’

One of the major activities of jailed dissident Alexei Navalny within the sphere of Russian Politics has been his ‘Smart Voting’ programme recommending voters who to vote in order to most efficiently vote against Vladimir Putin and his party, United Russia (YeR~ EPP|ECR|ID). While such a system offering voting choice advice may appear minor or not particularly novel to an outsider, the potential it has for upset within the Russian body politic should not be understated. 

The Smart Voting system is quite simple: it is in its core a general tactical voting recommender. The Russian State Duma, the national parliament, runs a parallel system of 50% seats elected by proportional representation with a five per cent threshold, and 50% seats elected by first-past-the-post system on single member constituencies. As such, the system generates large majorities for the ruling YeR party, much larger than its actual support. The aim of Smart Voting is to promote a larger opposition presence not only in the State Duma, but also in local and regional elections. 

The system has seen moderate success over the last two cycles of regional and local elections: especially during the Moscow regional elections of 2019, where it saw YeR slashed to a slim majority, and in Tomsk City where members of Navalny’s own team were elected to the City Duma, a municipal parliament.

While it has not as of yet been able to overturn a YeR government on a local level, with declining support for YeR in national polls measuring proportional representation it is possible that its effective use of the system could help the opposition gain more seats. Especially such is the case in the Russian Far East where recent polls show that the opposition have overtaken YeR in terms of direct support.

The Smart Voting system, however, is not without its faults. Like any tactical voting system, it relies on enough people to support it, and a general belief that it is worth voting tactically for the promoted outcome. On top of this, the smart voting system recommends all non-YeR political parties—even those that officially support the ruling regime—raising questions about its actual impact in politics. In addition, the Russian state itself has taken actions against Smart Voting, pressuring Search Engines to not show the official website.

Outside of its actual impact, smart voting could have another outcome. If it does cause an opposition surge in seats of the national parliament, either for a specific party or on the whole, it could shift the dynamic of Russian political culture. Since the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, the opposition has found it hard to articulate itself as a potential custodian of power. While the rising protest movement of the last few years has given them cause, within the institutions of the Russian state they find no legitimacy. Winning seats in the national parliamen t and building local support off the back of the Smart Voting system could boost the perception of the opposition amongst the general Russian populace, especially as the legitimacy of the regime is seen by some to be declining due to economic mismanagement.

The overall impact of Smart Voting, a system that has been in design for years and has had several open beta tests, was made for this specific election, the election of the national parliament, State Duma, on 19 September. If it rises to meet the expectations of makers and more, or fails to deliver any real impact, remains to be seen. 

Most recently, during the course of this article being written, the smart voting app was removed from both Google and Apple’s app stores. It appears, for the Russian state at-least, the threat of the application has proved out to be too much to ignore. 

Follow along our coverage of the Russian parliamentary ‘elections’ in our live blog.