ULYANOVSK, Russia -- "Is mackerel healthier than chicken?"
Billboards with this absurd election slogan have appeared across this middle Volga city of some 600,000 people. On September 13, voters will go to the polls in local elections, including for a new city duma. And by all appearances, the ruling United Russia party -- which has dominated the region for more than 15 years but which now is increasingly unpopular as the economy flounders -- is on the ropes.
Other billboards urge voters to vote against all candidates. The goal, say representatives of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), is to turn the elections into a farce and suppress voter turnout, making it easier for the authorities to falsify the results -- and for United Russia, the main political support for President Vladimir Putin's vertical power structure, to maintain its grip on power.
On August 20, the Communists struck back, holding a mock funeral for fair elections and solemnly carrying a coffin through the streets of the city before leaving it on the steps of the regional government building.
Throughout the early post-Soviet period, the Ulyanovsk region was the buckle in the so-called Red Belt of Communist-leaning agrarian regions across southwestern Russian. The capital of the region, the city of Ulyanovsk, was the birthplace both of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin and of Aleksandr Kerensky, who headed the provisional government that Lenin's Bolsheviks overthrew in 1917.
But for the last 15 years, the region has been the fiefdom of United Russia Governor Sergei Morozov. The ruling party's position has been deteriorating for some time now. In the 2018 local elections, the KPRF won the party-list race for the regional legislature, although United Russia held its majority by winning many rural single-mandate districts. The Communists also took a majority in the city council of Dimitrovgrad, the second-largest city in the region where Morozov served as mayor before rising to the governor's chair.
Now, with Putin's personal popularity slipping in the wake of a reviled pension reform, controversial constitutional amendments that could see him remain in the Kremlin until 2036, and the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, United Russia faces another round of local elections from a particularly weak position.
In Ulyanovsk, as in other recent local elections across Russia, United Russia candidates are running as "independents" to avoid explicit association with the unpopular brand. The party prepared the ground at the beginning of the year by changing the way the Ulyanovsk City Duma is elected -- eliminating party-list seats and creating 40 single-mandate districts instead.
Communists vs. Communists
In addition, the Communists of Russia party, headed by regional lawmaker Maksim Suraikin, is playing the role of a well-funded "spoiler" party. As soon as the process of registering candidates was completed, the Communists of Russia filed court challenges demanding the registrations of the KPRF candidates be annulled on technical grounds.
A city court agreed, disqualifying 19 KPRF candidates. Upon appeal, a regional court reinstated seven of them. The party is currently appealing to the Russian Supreme Court regarding the others.
"And they will definitely be reinstated," said local KPRF head and State Duma Deputy Aleksei Kurinny, citing the party's experience in other regions of the country. "But the Supreme Court will meet either right on the eve of the elections or after them, so our comrades are being pushed out of the race. And there is no precedent for annulling the results of an election because of such a situation."
Kurinny noted that the Ulyanovsk City Election Commission did not bother to defend its decisions to register the candidates, leading the party to conclude that the entire situation was planned from the onset.
"One of our candidates was incorrectly advised by the commission to fill in the blank about employment with the phrase 'temporarily not working' instead of 'unemployed,'" he told RFE/RL. "And that was later cited as a reason for cancelling his registration. In the wake of such a large number of mistakes, the commission should have been disbanded."
The election commission is headed by Vadim Andreyev, who is also a member of the regional political council of United Russia and deputy secretary of its outreach department. He ignored requests to be interviewed for this article.
"This is a political fight," said independent candidate Konstantin Tolkachyov, whose KPRF rival had his registration annulled. "We are talking about competition. The Communists are suffering from their own incompetence. They should have studied the legal precedents and consulted with their Moscow leadership."
Ulyanovsk-based political analyst Nina Dergunova is certain the Communists of Russia are doing United Russia's bidding. "It looks as if United Russia is not involved," she said, "but it is obvious that Suraikin didn't come up with this idea on his own but rather was prompted by United Russia or the governor's administration. But all the negative feedback will go to Suraikin and the Communists of Russia. And United Russia will say, 'This is just a dispute among the communists.'"
Dissatisfied Voters Become Radical Voters
But Nikolai Vasin, another political analyst in Ulyanovsk, is not convinced the ruling party will reap benefits from its tactics. Many voters still dislike United Russia and want to vote for change, which could lead to radicalization. "This happens when people are deprived of the right to make their own choice and are pushed to do something else," he said. "And this creates mass dissatisfaction, that's a fact. What form that dissatisfaction will take is hard to say."
In local elections in Moscow last year, the authorities disqualified almost all the liberal-opposition candidates, sparking weeks of intense protests. In the 2018 elections to the Ulyanovsk regional legislature, many KPRF candidates were disqualified as well, and locals instead gave their votes to the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia headed by firebrand politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky.
"When voters see that their candidates are disqualified and that the authorities are behind it, they might give their support to someone whom the authorities like even less," Vasin added. "Not everyone understands politics very well.... The sharp conflict between United Russia and the KPRF has gotten out of hand and voters have lost the plot. So any unexpected candidate might get their votes."
On September 13, voters in 18 Russian regions will elect governors, while 11 regions will choose regional legislatures. In addition, four special elections for State Duma seats will be held, in addition to numerous municipal and local elections. The anti-Putin opposition has focused on the local elections with the aim of weakening United Russia's near-monopoly on political power ahead of the 2021 parliamentary elections.
"The Kremlin is tightening controls even further, using techniques such as new powers to disqualify unwanted candidates, extended early voting, electronic voting, mail ballots, and unlimited mobile voting at home or in makeshift locations outside regular polling places -- all of which leave plenty of room for manipulation and vote fraud by the state," wrote opposition figure Vladimir Kara-Murza in The Washington Post in August. "According to Golos, an independent election-monitoring group, the 2020 local elections 'will be held under the worst legislative framework of the last 25 years.'"