There is an unspoken agreement in the Russian political scene: the heads of the country's 85 regions enjoy the Kremlin's backing, and in exchange they deliver high local support and election turnout for the ruling United Russia party.
Yet a handful of unexpected results in gubernatorial elections, including the surprising annulment of a runoff vote in Russia's Far East, have exposed possible cracks in that arrangement.
United Russia candidates -- including incumbent governors -- were forced into unexpected runoff elections on September 23 against candidates whose financing and administrative resources pale in comparison.
The opposition, however, is seen to benefit from simmering public anger over the government's plans to reform the pension system by hiking the retirement age by five years. The government's approval rating has dropped precipitously since the initiative was announced in April, and many analysts see protest votes behind the four September 9 polls that will ultimately be decided in the upcoming runoffs.
Vyacheslav Polovinko, a political analyst for the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, says that "protests against the pension reform and the government's disgusting conduct in elections plays perfectly into the hands of the left."
But the Communist Party (KPRF), which is fielding runoff candidates in two of the four regions, is unlikely to take advantage. "The KPRF doesn't need a conflict with the Kremlin," Polovinko notes.
An Omen To The Kremlin?
The Kremlin appears to be scrambling to avert second-round upsets. Ahead of the September 23 votes, it has dispatched officials from its Domestic Policy Directorate to three of the regions -- Primorye, Vladimir, and Khabarovsk. In the fourth, Khakasia, the Communist candidate has been pressured to withdraw amid threats of a black PR campaign against him, sources in his party told the newspaper Vedomosti. It's unclear who issued the threats, and the Communist Party has publicly refuted the claims.
The recent failure of United Russia to walk away with a victory in Primorye, seven time zones from Moscow, may serve as an omen for the Kremlin. The election commission there stands accused of brazen vote tampering during the region's September 16 runoff, an alleged effort to secure the victory of Andrei Tarasenko, the United Russian candidate and acting governor since October 2017.
Late on September 16, with 95 percent of the ballots counted, Tarasenko was nearly 6 percentage points behind his Communist challenger, Andrei Ishchenko. Ishchenko's supporters began reveling in an astounding victory over a system they believed was rigged. "It was PEOPLE who voted for Andrei Ishchenko," one wrote on Facebook. "Ballot stuffing, double-voting, bribes, blackmail and threats -- none of this worked."
But the celebration proved premature. An extraordinary last-minute surge handed Tarasenko a razor-thin victory. Ishchenko cried foul, announcing an indefinite hunger strike and calling on his supporters to join him in central Vladivostok. On September 19, the Central Election Commission (TsIK) in Moscow called for the result to be annulled and a new vote to be held by December. It will mark the first time since Vladimir Putin took power that an election rerun will determine the governor of a Russian region.
Moscow has conceded that vote-rigging took place on September 16, but far from admitting systemic problems, it portrayed the situation in Primorye as an isolated incident. Ella Pamfilova, the former human rights ombudswoman who now heads the TsIK, warned that the perpetrators of the election fraud would face up to four years in jail.
Polovinko believes the Kremlin has learned its lesson, and that "it will try to at least soften the falsifications" after the debacle in Primorye. "And if the systemic opposition wins," he adds, "then it won't insist on its candidates but build relations with the new governor."
Polovinko says not to expect anything revolutionary, however, even if the results go against the ruling party.
The candidates running against United Russia in the September 23 runoff votes, he argues, are from the so-called "systemic opposition" -- meaning they "fit into the system."
"The Kremlin cares less about a United Russia victory than that the winning candidate can be worked with," he adds.