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Local Elections: Boring And Predictable, Until They Aren't

  • Brian Whitmore

Local elections in Russia tend to be dull, choreographed affairs. But every now and then...

They're dull and boring -- until they get interesting.

They're stage-managed and predictable -- until they surprise you.

Local and regional elections in Russia, like the ones being held across the country this weekend, provide an opportunity for the Kremlin to road test and fine-tune its vote-rigging machinery and size up public opinion.

They tend to be low-turnout affairs in which the authorities have little trouble mobilizing state employees and deploying so-called "administrative resources" -- the carrots, sticks, and tricks the authorities use to manage Russia's tightly controlled elections -- to get their desired result.

But every now and then, local and regional elections turn into something else entirely.

Sometimes, they highlight latent discontent that is becoming manifest. Sometimes -- despite the authorities' best efforts to choreograph them -- they produce an unexpected shock to the system.

That was certainly the case four years ago, in September 2013, when Aleksei Navalny performed surprisingly well in the Moscow mayoral election, coming within just a couple of percentage points of forcing incumbent Sergei Sobyanin into a runoff; and when Yevgeny Roizman outright won the mayor's office in Yekaterinburg, defeating the ruling United Russia party's candidate.

And it was just over three decades ago when local elections turned out to be harbingers of historic changes to come, providing the first tangible hint that the tectonic plates were shifting beneath the political landscape.

The 'Revolution' Of 1987

It was on June 21, 1987, when Mikhail Gorbachev's Soviet Union experimented with its first competitive multicandidate local elections in a limited number of districts.

The elections were an early part of Gorbachev's perestroika reforms and were designed to breathe some new life into the moribund Soviet bureaucracy and pressure conservative elements in the Communist Party.

The competitive votes were held in just 5 percent of the Soviet Union's electoral districts, comprising just 100,000 of the 2.3 million seats to 52,000 local councils nationwide.

The other 95 percent maintained the traditional Soviet practice of single-candidate "elections."

But where the elections were competitive, the results were striking -- and revealing.

In the multicandidate districts in the Soviet Union's Russian Republic, for example, just 42.7 percent of those elected were Communist Party members.

The 1987 local elections, of course, didn't shake the system and the Soviet Communist Party remained firmly in control in their aftermath.

But the discontent that was registered was a precursor of more dramatic events to come: competitive elections for a newly established national legislature, the Congress of People's Deputies, in the spring of 1989; the rise of a pro-democracy faction of lawmakers led by dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov; Boris Yeltsin's election in June 1991 as president of the Russian Republic; and, ultimately, the fall of the Soviet Union.

Then And Now

Of course, the autumn of 2017 is not the summer of 1987 -- let alone the spring of 1989 or the summer of 1991.

Back then, the impulse for change was coming from the top as Gorbachev sought to use elections to pressure the conservative wing of the party that was resisting reform.

Now, Putin is doing everything in his power to maintain the status quo and is hostile to any hint of political reform and pluralism.

Then, the prospect of competitive elections was brand new and generated excitement in society.

Now, the public is accustomed to elections and has become -- somewhat justifiably -- cynical about the potential for change through the ballot box.

Then, the authorities were novices at manipulating competitive elections.

Now, they've mastered the arts of marketing, spin, and black PR and have become so adept at mobilizing state employees that they rarely need to resort to cruder forms of vote-fixing like ballot stuffing.

Then, there was a palpable desire for change in society.

Now, the picture is, at best, mixed.

Protest activity in Russia is, indeed, on the rise, and it is mainly focused on local issues like the decision by Moscow authorities to demolish Khrushchev-era apartment blocks.

Anger over corruption, which manifested itself in nationwide protests this past spring, is also growing. And sentiment that the system is unjust is also increasing.

But despite this, according to the independent Levada Center's latest polls, a healthy majority of 57 percent believes the country is on the right track.

Writing in Vedomosti, the Levada Center's Aleksei Levinson addressed the paradox, arguing that there is a rising discontent among Russians about the domestic political situation -- even as the authorities continue to enjoy strong support in foreign affairs.

And it is precisely in local elections where such discontent is most likely to register.

Back in June 1987, the Communist Party guaranteed it would keep its overwhelming majorities by only allowing competitive elections in a tiny number of districts.

Today, the Putin regime is doing the same with mechanisms like the so-called municipal filter, which stipulates that would-be candidates in those races must collect signatures from between 5 and 10 percent of local lawmakers.

This weekend's elections are unlikely to shake -- or even rattle -- the Putin system. But they may reveal something important about the disquiet below the surface.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or

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