Russia goes to the polls this weekend for important regional elections in 83 regions where the Kremlin will face a challenge due to the sinking popularity of the ruling United Russia Party.
As bne IntelliNews reported, the Kremlin faces an uphill battle to maintain control. Only 31% of Russians say they are willing to vote for the ruling United Russia Party, according to a poll released by independent pollster the Levada Center this week.
The party’s share of the vote has been falling steadily in recent years as dissatisfaction with Russia’s economic stagnation and the six-year long fall in the value of real incomes weighs on the population. The Kremlin is well aware of the problem and launched the 12 National Projects in an attempt to reverse the tide, but the multiple external shocks it has received this year have stymied its efforts and the cash-strapped government has delayed implementation.
The United Russia Party has been sliding in the polls for several years and only commands 31% in the most recent poll.
New rules of the game
The Kremlin has been preparing the ground to make sure it controls the process and is unlikely to lose its grip on any regions. As part of the changes to the constitution rammed through in July the period of “early voting” has been extended, and this election will be the first one to see a three day-long voting period, with physical votes to be held on Sunday, September 13.
Early voting is regarded as an easy way to fix the vote and in the recent hotly disputed Belarusian presidential elections on August 9 the government allowed a full week of early voting that was the main mechanism for the massive falsification of the poll. Indeed, the ballot boxes were so overstuffed that several polling stations reported over 100% turnout and there are clips on social media showing polling station staff climbing down ladders from back windows with bags full of excess votes.
“Two hours after e-voting began in two Russian regions, Kursk and Yaroslavl, a THIRD of those eligible have already cast their votes. Confirms suspicions that e-vote is just a form of rigging,” tweeted Leonid Ragozin, a well-known Russian journalist shortly after the early poll voting began.
The CEC site shows that a third of registered votes in the regions of Kursk and Yaroslavl had been cast in the first two hours of early voting on September 11.
In Russia amendments were made to the electoral legislation in May, according to which the Central Election Commission (CEC) received the right to establish the procedure and timing of citizens' voting "in order to create conditions for the protection of their health" and "to create maximum convenience." The government is justifying the increased use of distance voting because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic that is still raging in the country.
According to paragraph 16 of Article 65 of the Law "On Basic Guarantees of Citizens' Electoral Rights", early voting in regional and municipal elections can be conducted “in the manner and terms established by the CEC prior to voting day, but not earlier than ten days before voting day.”
Communists in the ropes
The Kremlin-sponsored candidates are expected to win all the regions where they are standing, but some of the races are going to tight. The main loser in these elections will be the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), which is the only real opposition party in Russia that maintains a nationwide grassroots party structure that allows it to compete with United Russia.
The KPRF has been under pressure and was only able to field candidates in about two thirds of all the races. The party has been struggling to update itself in recent years and cast off its legacy as the remnant of the Soviet-era communist party. In other countries of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) the former communist parties reinvented themselves as left-leaning socialist parties, but updated their programmes to incorporate the new capitalist paradigm. Not Russia’s KPRF, which has clung tenaciously to the Soviet ideology, designed to appeal to its increasingly elderly core voter base.
The party has fielded some younger candidates in previous elections, who have introduced more modern ideas, but the leadership under Gennady Zhuganov have stamped out these efforts at reform and maintain a tight grip on the party that is steadily strangling it as its base slowly dies off.
Gennady Zhuganov has led the Russian Communist Party since 1993 but has failed to modernise it or introduce new ideas
The other opposition parties in Russia remain weak and have single-digit ratings in the polls. They remain fissiparous and unable to present either a united front or a realistic platform. The main message of the opposition is “not Putin” but without any concrete programme, the population, wary of instability and their hard won gains of the last two decades, are not convinced. However, anti-corruption blogger and opposition activist Alexei Navalny has mounted a more successful rebellion and appeals to the “not Putin” voters, of which there are an increasing number. Navalny has been trying to build up a regional network and last summer he organised a string of regional protests to bring the opposition politics to the regions.
The main focus of the opposition has been to stymie the Kremlin’s efforts to place its people in the regions by using “smart voting.” A spoiler tactic, the opposition identifies the leading non-Kremlin candidate, be it one of their own or a Communist candidate, and using social media tries to pursue as many voters as possible to vote for that candidate with the goal of keeping the establishment's candidate out of office.
The tactic has been met with some success and this has been suggested as one possible reason for the Novichok poison attack on Navalny, who currently is lying in hospital in Berlin recovering. He was in the Siberian capital of Tomsk when he was poisoned, where he had met with local activists as part of preparations for the smart voting campaign at this weekend’s election.
Opposition activist Alexey Navalny has been constantly harassed but continues to try to undermine the Kremlin's grip on power
There are no regions with a pronounced threat of second rounds this year, and all the campaigns will be held in one round, say four sources close to the presidential administration, as cited by RBC. However, there are a number of votes where risks exist and where, under certain circumstances, the chances of a second round are there.
In total, more than 9,000 elections are planned. In four single-mandate constituencies, additional elections for new deputies to the Duma will be held, in 18 regions there are direct elections for new governors and in nine of those the interim governors appointed by the president are running for a first term. In two more regions – the Nenets and Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrugs – the heads will be elected by the deputies of the local legislative assembly.
Regional parliaments will be elected in 11 regions, and city councils will be elected in 22 administrative centres. There will also be elections at a lower level to local governments of regions, urban districts and settlements.
As bne IntelliNews has reported, the image of Russian President Vladimir Putin's omnipresent power over Russia is illusionary: United Russia failed to win a majority in two thirds of Russia’s regions in the last general elections and it was only the near-100% vote in eight key regions, mostly in the Caucasus, that accounted for its majority. Several regions are outright rebellious, most recently Khabarovsk, where the locals have been protesting against the removal of their governor for three months now. According to another poll, half the Russian population support the protester in Khabarovsk.
The Kremlin’s grip on the regions is slipping slowly as Russia’s economy continues to develop. With more funds being invested in regional development, regional governors have become much more popular and have developed regional powerbases of their own. Ironically this is a function of the Kremlin’s own efforts to develop regional infrastructure. It began with the massive investments in Sochi ahead of the Olympics in 2014 that transformed the city. While the circa $40bn that was spent on roads, airports, housing and sports arenas was decried as the “most expensive Olympics ever”, what the detractors missed was that the bulk of this investment was to bring the city up to international standards rather than just the Olympic infrastructure. Since then, the population of Sochi has more than doubled and it is now seen as one of the most attractive places to live in Russia. The story was repeated with the preparation for the 2018 World Cup, where 11 more cities were similarly upgraded.
As a result, the regional governors' popularity has soared and actually overtook Russian President Vladimir Putin’s popularity earlier this year before falling back a little in July.
Meduza has published a good profile of the most likely battle states. The traditionally rebellious Irkutsk in Siberia and the far-northern Arkhangelsk region are likely to cause the most problems, as will the more recently rebellious region of Khabarovsk in the Far East.
A sort of Siberian nationalism rules in Irkutsk that has always made the locals wary of outsiders, whereas there has been a string of large-scale popular protests in Arkhangelsk against smelly municipal landfills.
Elsewhere, Navalny has organised an opposition coalition in Novosibirsk in southern Siberia, that has put Sergey Boyko, the local head of Navalny’s office, as a candidate and in with a fighting chance.
And finally the Kremlin is trying out some new parties created with the Kremlin’s support ahead of the 2021 State Duma elections, Meduza reports. This includes nationalist writer Zakhar Prilepin’s For Truth Party; the New People Party created by Alexey Nechayev, the founder of the beauty and apparel company Faberlic; the Direct Democracy Party (better known as the “Party of Tanks”), founded by Vyacheslav Makarov, the developer behind the online role-playing game World of Tanks; and the Green Alternative Party under the informal leadership of artist Vasya Lozhkin.
According to the Putin administration’s plan, as a result of these elections each of these parties should be exempt from collecting endorsement signatures for the upcoming nominations to the State Duma. To do this, a party needs only to win seats for its ticket in at least one legislative assembly by breaking the 5% barrier in an election. Each party has been allotted a region where it enjoys the local authorities’ favouritism and administrative support.