No surprise: Russia's dominant party is claiming sweeping victories in regional and local elections.
Surprise: Allies of poisoned anti-corruption crusader Aleksei Navalny may have won legislative seats in two Siberian cities, and the Kremlin-controlled United Russia party lost its majority in three.
Races for governor, regional legislatures, and city councils were held in many of Russia’s provinces in three days of voting ending on September 13. As with nearly all of Russia’s elections in recent years, the voting took place within the constraints of what an architect of President Vladimir Putin’s political system once famously called “managed democracy.”
Still, despite the Kremlin’s managerial efforts and a fresh clampdown on opponents, there’s some wiggle room for the Russian electorate, and local issues -- landfills, for example -- have motivated voters in some locations to push for election results that don’t always fit into Moscow’s governing plans.
Layered on top of that is the reality that the country’s ruling political party is deeply unpopular and Putin’s sheen is tarnished, with his popularity ratings sliding in his current term.
And that will have knock-on effects for next year’s national election of the lower house of parliament, the State Duma.
Here’s a quick look at some of the results of the three-day vote, and what they portend for the future.
Navalny’s Hospital Bed Victory
The elections took place just three weeks after Navalny fell violently ill while on a flight to Moscow from Tomsk, where he was helping to rally his local supporters, and to push his “smart voting” initiative.
Navalny was hospitalized in Russia, put into a coma, and later evacuated to a Berlin hospital, where German doctors concluded he was poisoned with a toxic nerve agent first developed in the Soviet era.
In Tomsk, United Russia won the most votes but lost its majority in the city council, while two allies of the stricken opposition politician -- Ksenia Fadeyeva and Andrei Fateyev -- won seats, according to preliminary results.
In Novosibirsk, another Siberian city known for its academic and scientific community, another Navalny ally, Sergei Boiko, was on track to win a city council seat there.
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The victories were unquestionably small; city councils are not typically where sweeping political change happens in Russia. But they are also highly symbolic, showing the staying power of Navalny -- who has built a formidable political machine, tapping Russians’ frustration with the endemic corruption that critics say permeates United Russia and Putin’s allies.
Moreover, the wins came outside of the big cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg, whose electorates tend to be more liberal than in Russian regions. And the wins involved what’s known in Russia as the “non-systemic opposition” -- a complicated nomenclature that describes opposition forces that operate without the Kremlin’s tacit approval.
Navalny’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh asserted that the wins showed Navalny’s support reaches beyond the biggest urban centers.
“This is the answer to all the whining that allegedly Aleksei is not supported in the regions,” she wrote in a post to Twitter. “They very much support him.”
Ruling Party, Ruling Victories
United Russia’s popularity ratings have never been lower. Navalny can claim much of the credit for that, having first popularized the phrase “Party of Crooks and Thieves” to describe United Russia in 2012, and then hammered the party ever since. Stagnant wages, controversial pension reforms, and tax hikes have also hurt the party’s standing among Russian voters.
In past votes, a sizable number of candidates for local offices, including in Moscow, have actually run as independents, as a way to distance themselves from United Russia’s damaged brand.
Still, the party is formidable, and continues to have a chokehold on elected offices, up and down the ballot, and across the country.
Citing data from exit polls and preliminary counting, Andrei Turchak, the secretary of United Russia's general council, said the party was set to win majorities in all regional legislatures and that its candidates for governor were well ahead.
And first results on September 14 showed United Russia victorious in all 18 gubernatorial races; in some regions, Tatarstan, Komi, and Kamchatka, results showed landslide victories for United Russia candidates.
That was also true in Irkutsk, an industrial Siberian city near Lake Baikal; preliminary results there showed the incumbent governor ended up winning with more than 61 percent, despite an exit poll that pointed to a close race.
But there were dents in United Russia's armor.
In Tomsk’s 37-seat city legislature, despite the showing from Navalny’s allies, United Russia ended up dominant, with more than 24 percent of the vote, but its number of seats dropped to just 11, according to early results, down from 21.
Similarly in Novosibirisk, where United Russia’s share of seats fell to 22 seats, down from 33. United Russia lost its majority in Tambov’s legislature as well.
The independent election-monitoring organization Golos said 6 of the 18 candidates who ran for the governorships ran as independents, to hide their Untied Russia affiliations.
United Russia’s continuing unpopularity poses a problem for the Kremlin, where there’s anxiety that if the State Duma elections expected in September 2021 are fair and competitive, the party could suffer major losses.
And there are signs that the Kremlin may already be trying to get ahead of the problem of United Russia’s unpopularity: a new political party reportedly created with the Kremlin blessing-- New People -- gained enough votes in the weekend’s local election to potentially contest the Duma elections.
After Navalny and his allies realized they couldn’t take on United Russia and the Kremlin’s managed democracy head-on, they opted for a different tactic: “smart voting.”
That’s when Navalny’s political organization essentially presents disaffected voters a list of alternative candidates to United Russia’s candidates.
It worked in the 2019 Moscow city council elections, where United Russia lost a sizable number of seats, and it appears to have worked in Novosibirsk, Tomsk, and elsewhere in these most recent elections. In all, Navalny’s group endorsed more than 1,000 candidates in the local elections across the country to challenge United Russia candidates.
It wasn’t immediately clear how many of those “smart vote” candidates ended up winning, but it does mean that smart voting is not only here to stay, but will likely be used to greater effect in the September 2019 Duma elections.
“The main conclusion of the recent campaign is simple: Voters need to register on the Smart Voting website and cast their votes in accordance with its recommendations,” Ilya Yashin, an opposition political leader, wrote in a post to Facebook. “If we do everything in a smart way, then next year United Russia will lose its majority in the federal parliament.”
Russia’s election system has never been a paragon of competition, transparency, or unquestioned accuracy. It’s a trend that has gotten worse in recent years, something that Golos and other organizations have documented extensively.
These regional elections were the first to use a new system allowing voting over three days. It was a move ostensibly aimed at minimizing the potential danger of coronavirus infections. But organizations warned it would be more difficult to document and prevent fraud.
“Over the past four years, Golos has never received such a massive flow of communications about demonstrative disregard of the law, including the rights of observers and members of [electoral] commissions,” the organization said in a statement on September 14.
Stanislav Andreichuk, an expert with Golos, told RFE/RL that administrative and legislative barriers were getting increasingly worse for election transparency, a trend he predicted would only worsen.
“There will be a growing conflict, a clash of these increasing trends in the coming years,” he said.