BMB: Russia – In Search of the Unexpected – The September 10th elections in the regions

Article published on the Bear Market Brief on September 19, 2017.

The electoral success of the United Democrats in Moscow on 10 September was the most widely commented upon after the more than 6,000 local and regional elections held across Russia that day (see this report by the Moscow Times). Surprises were harder to find in the regions, where United Russia was victorious across the board despite a record low turnout. Less expected however were the results of the “systemic opposition” – parties other than United Russia that have seats in the Duma – overtaken in some instances by political groups lacking in formal representation.

Unsurprisingly, the gubernatorial elections were the least contested: United Russia’s candidates won in each of the 16 regions that voted. Six governors even took more than 80% of the vote (in Mordovia, Mari El, Buryatia, Perm, Ryazan and Kaliningrad), while the lowest score was still above 60%. The results are yet another confirmation that gubernatorial elections act merely as a confirmation mechanism providing an appearance of democratic legitimacy rather than an actual electoral cycle. Since their reinstatement in 2012, 87 gubernatorial elections have led to a single run-off.

The absence of competition certainly helped Kremlin-appointed governors to confirm their seats, but also led to a general lack of interest for the election. Turnout was under 45% in 13 of the 16 regions, and below 35% in seven regions. More importantly, it was lower in every region compared to the previous election, excepting Sverdlovsk, crashing from 59% to 28% and from 50% to 29% in the Yaroslav and Karelia regions. Weak  attempts by the center and regional authorities to boost turnout in preparation for the presidential elections quite clearly failed, putting in jeopardy the alleged “70/70” plan put together by the Presidential Administration for the presidential election (and which would see Vladimir Putin be elected with 70% of the vote amid a 70% turnout).

Turnout is of course naturally higher in presidential elections, but the main issue – lack of competition leading to a disinterest for the electoral race among Russians – will remain and likely won’t be solved by gimmicks such as asking Russians to take selfies inside voting booths.

This failure to raise turnout using PR methods also raises the risk of authorities resorting to creative accounting. While the Kremlin has pushed for the appearance of cleaner elections in recent years (in part by preventing the registration of opposition candidates, reducing the need to doctor outcomes), delivering results remain the priority number one.

Russian election monitoring NGO Golos recorded about 1,700 instances of election fraud this September. This is a similar overall number to the last round of regional and local elections, which implies a higher proportion of fraud this year to those held in 2015, when another 4,000 elections were held. There was no evidence of massive systemic fraud, but this Reuters report vividly illustrates how the time-honored techniques of ballot stuffing and phantom voters are still a reality of Russian elections.

…the time-honored techniques of ballot stuffing and phantom voters are still a reality of Russian elections…

Despite poor voter turnout, the Kremlin was pleased by the results of the gubernatorial elections. According to Vedomosti, Sergey Kirienko, the deputy head of Russia’s presidential administration in charge of internal politics, sent congratulation letters to the political strategists charged with handling the elections. Since a good number of the acting governors lacked any real political experience, the role of these political strategists was probably key to give the Kremlin a victory without any embarrassing results.

In particular, the results of the gubernatorial elections seems to have encouraged the Kremlin to maintain its course of choosing younger and more technocratic faces to lead the regions. Rumors circulating for the past few weeks of another gubernatorial reshuffle have gained momentum since the elections. If mysterious sources close to the Kremlin” are to be believed, up to ten governors could be dismissed this fall as the Kremlin plans to continue its “rejuvenation and renewal of the gubernatorial corpus”.

The rise of non-systemic parties?

United Russia’s success wasn’t limited to the gubernatorial elections. The party also won a majority in five of the six elections for local parliaments (in North Ossetia, Udmurtia, Krasnodar, Saratov and Penza), as well as the majority of the local elections. While turnout was low in the gubernatorial elections, it was even poorer in the local elections, with few above 35%, and Vladivostok only achieving 14.5%.

To find an unexpected result in the regions, one has to look beyond United Russia and the liberal opposition, which did not manage to repeat its Moscow success anywhere outside of the capital. That said, according to Russian political scientist Alexander Kynev, the elections showcased “a general desire for renewal”, leading to the success of groups usually on the fringes of Russia’s political system. In the town of Bolshoy Kamen, in the Far East, independent candidates won 17 of the 22 seats for the local parliament. Candidates not affiliated with any parties were also successful in Voronozeh and Orlov where they came second, behind United Russia but ahead of the systemic opposition. The Patriots of Russia party came second in the election for the regional parliament in North Ossetia, while the Communists of Russia pushed ahead of the actual, much more powerful Communist Party in Cherkessk. The nationalist, far-right Rodina (Motherland) managed to win 12.01% of the vote in the city parliament elections of Gorno-Altaysk, behind United Russia and the Communist Party but ahead of LDPR and A Just Russia.

With more than 6,000 elections, these kinds of individual successes are bound to happen. But Kynev sees more than a few isolated cases, arguing that elections now come down to the candidates’ personalities and the team surrounding them rather than partisan support, a trend which puts the systemic opposition in crisis. The most illustrative example of this might be the mayoral election in Irkutsk, where the United Russia candidate was elected with 68% of the vote, and where second place went to Against All, a protest ballot that proved more attractive for many than a vote for candidates from formal opposition.

The term “crisis” may be an exaggeration in the case of the Communist Party, which remains Russia’s biggest “opposition” party. Looking at the results however, A Just Russia seems to be in trouble, lacking ideological substance and fairing worse than small political groups more frequently than LDPR or the Communist Party in the regions. Combined with the continued decrease in turnout, this trend of lessened interest in the biggest parties apart from United Russia is certainly one to watch.

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