If the regional elections in Russia had been normal elections, the results would be easy to interpret. The ruling United Russia party lost about 20 percentage points of support more or less across the board, despite the kinds of gross election violations that have become the norm. Many analysts, including the astute Aleksandr Kynev, interpreted the outcome as “catastrophic” for the ruling party and a sign of a “fundamental” shift in the public mood.
Here’s a bit of what he wrote on gazeta.ru today:
If you look at the voting and the run-up to it, then it is plain that the same problems that were noted in earlier elections were evident – that is, elections themselves have not gotten any cleaner. As before, there was pressure on state-sector workers and manipulation of absentee voting and early voting (despite all the declarations about this that have come from the federal level) – even in areas where there were scandals earlier, such as Astrakhan and Sochi. Some of the most well-known examples from recent days are the voluntary-compulsory mass early voting of students in Ivanovo; bribing and handing out drinks in Tula; and reports that whole brigades of people with absentee ballots were forced to report to their bosses with photographs of their properly marked ballots in Ryazan, Sverdlovsk, and Voronezh oblasts.
And on and on. (The local election commission in Sochi last week posted a video appeal to President Dmitry Medvedev complaining of gross violations in early voting and asking him to invalidate the entire early-voting process in the region.)
Nonetheless, Kynev argues, the results show that even the gross abuse of administrative resources could not hold up United Russia’s sagging fortunes. He notes that in most regions, United Russia managed only a plurality – that is, the total vote for the other parties was greater than the ruling party’s result.
But not so fast. In terms of actual seats, United Russia has almost certainly secured majorities in all eight regional legislatures that were contested, due in large measure to the fact that most Russian regions had already – under United Russia-controlled legislatures – adopted mandate-apportioning systems that are heavily skewed toward the leading vote-getter (the so-called Imperiali divisors). This was the system that gave United Russia 91 percent of the seats (31 of 35) in the Moscow City Duma in October after polling (or being awarded by the municipal election commission) 66 percent of the vote during the elections last October.
In addition, the newly elected regional legislatures will all feature the same four parties that have factions in the State Duma – United Russia, A Just Russia, the Communist Party, and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR). Other parties that are not reliably in the Kremlin’s pocket – Yabloko, Right Cause, Patriots of Russia – were systematically eliminated at the campaign stage.
It should be recalled that in the regional elections in October, United Russia showed a huge and inexplicable jump in support and in some regions, such as the Moscow City Duma, ended up practically alone in the legislative chamber.
This prompted President Dmitry Medvedev – although he never disputed the official results of the October voting and rejected all the well-documented evidence of illegality and falsification – to make a lot of nice-sounding declarations about how political competition needs to increase and so on.
Now – voila! – we have results that the casual observer could easily mistake for a great leap forward in democracy. If, that is, one ignores the fact that United Russia-controlled legislatures will continue to work in tandem with Kremlin-appointed, United Russia-controlled governors in every region of Russia.
It is true that discontent is rising and the waves of protests over economic issues, as well as the outrage that is mounting as more and more police abuses are revealed, are very real -- and a real concern in Moscow. These elections could be a way of responding to that discontent with the goal of defusing the protests. They also further institutionalize the pseudo-opposition (pro-Kremlin media today are hyping the idea that the anti-United Russia “protest vote” went to the other three pro-Kremlin parties) on the stage of Russia’s political theater, providing cover for the continued intentional marginalization of genuinely alternative political forces.
Furthermore, the real context of these elections is the next wave of national elections. The Duma will be elected in 2011 and a presidential election will follow in March 2012. We know the Kremlin is already actively working on this problem – just last week it was reported that a longtime former presidential administration official has been appointed to the administration of the Central Election Commission to oversee the formation of regional election commissions for the upcoming votes.
The ruling elite’s levers and mechanisms for ensuring who participates in elections, what the turnout is, and what the final results are seem to be as finely honed and precisely functioning as ever. In past elections, the Kremlin has always managed to get the results it wanted. Is there really any reason to think that has changed now?