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Ahead of regional elections across Russia on September 8, the authorities took into account the trend of protest voting seen last year, when state-backed candidates lost gubernatorial elections in four different regions. This time, the Kremlin has not been forced into a runoff vote in any region. There were no major disasters for the ruling United Russia party in elections for regional legislative assemblies either, with two notable exceptions: the Khabarovsk region and Moscow.
It's true that achieving these results took considerable effort: strong opposition candidates were barred from running, and the United Russia party brand had to be hidden on campaign materials. And what happened in Khabarovsk, which was one of the regions to elect a non-United Russia governor last year, shows that once the opposition wins one election, people become much more willing to vote for it again.
For the first time in the history of Russian elections, the ruling party has completely lost control of one of the regions. The LDPR party won a majority of seats in the Khabarovsk region legislative assembly, the Khabarovsk city parliament, and the council of deputies in the Khabarovsk region city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur. A seat representing the region in the State Duma that was up for grabs in a by-election also went to an LDPR candidate, Ivan Pilyayev.
Last year, the region elected an LDPR governor, Sergei Furgal, as the result of protest voting. Now the LDPR’s victory is complete. Yet neither the Kremlin nor Furgal himself was prepared for the LDPR’s success in the Khabarovsk region. It was expected that protest voting for the LDPR under the party list system would be balanced out by the election of United Russia members and independents loyal to the government in single-mandate districts. For that purpose, the previous assembly members had even increased the quota of single-mandate seats from half to two-thirds of the assembly’s seats. But in the end, United Russia didn’t win in any of the single-mandate districts. All that was needed to turn the protest voting in the LDPR’s favor was some billboards showing candidates with the party’s name, and short videos of them declaring that they were part of the governor’s team.
Experiments in the region involving new populists loyal to the authorities—the singer Vika Tsyganova (for United Russia) and the former-diplomat-turned-talk-show-commentator Nikolai Platoshkin (for the Communists) were not a success, even though both of them campaigned hard, holding daily meetings with voters, traveling to the region’s most remote parts, and employing sharply oppositional rhetoric (especially Platoshkin). For Pilyayev, who campaigned far less actively, the LDPR brand on his billboards was enough to secure his victory.
For locals, Furgal has become a symbol of change. People have seen that their choice really means something. Furgal didn’t go all out to win the gubernatorial election last year, but having won the vote, he has made use of the opportunities that have opened up for him to become a populist governor, and now has a loyal majority in the local legislative assemblies.
After last year’s gubernatorial election, Moscow resolved to punish the rebellious region, and stripped Khabarovsk of its status as capital of the Far Eastern Federal District. But this only provoked its inhabitants. By voting for the LDPR, they were both protesting against the policies of the federal government, and simultaneously showing support for their own regional authorities.
How the Kremlin will treat a region where an independent power vertical has formed around a non-United Russia governor is a separate question. There are very few precedents of opposition parties winning regional parliament elections. The most high-profile of them was the victory of A Just Russia in the Stavropol region in 2007, when the regional branch of the party was headed by the city’s young mayor, Dmitry Kuzmin, who made no secret of his ambition to become governor. The center’s response was heavy-handed: criminal cases were opened against Kuzmin and his associates, and the mayor was forced to flee the country.
Now, however, hostile actions by Moscow against the regional authorities in Khabarovsk could only ignite protests in a strategically important border region. At the same time, it’s clear that the center is unlikely to willingly reconcile itself to the fact of a parallel power vertical.
The other sensation of the recent elections were those for the Moscow city parliament. The campaign to elect municipal deputies in the capital had always been a boring and predictable affair, but not this time.
The mayor’s office was unsuccessful in winning over the kind of authoritative figures it wanted to see run: people who are respected even in opposition circles, but who are overall loyal. In the end, they only managed to recruit charitable organization founder Nyuta Federmesser, who subsequently withdrew from the elections.
The rejection of opposition candidates’ applications to run in the elections led to tens of thousands of people taking part in protests that the authorities repressed brutally. Interest in the upcoming elections grew, and protesters resolved to make their point by voting for anyone with a chance of defeating the state-backed candidate. Consequently, opposition candidates won in twenty out of forty-five municipal districts, many without even really campaigning.
The mayor’s office has retained its majority in the Moscow parliament, but several of its most important and prized candidates lost, including Andrei Metelsky, head of the Moscow branch of United Russia, and Valeria Kasamara, vice rector of the Higher School of Economics. Many of the winning state-backed candidates scraped to victory with a narrow margin.
In nineteen out of forty-five districts, the winning candidate was the one whom opposition leader Alexei Navalny urged protesters to back, using tactical voting. Yet despite the opposition’s success, the mayor’s office has retained control over the city parliament. More than half the votes are enough to pass the city budget, and that’s all the city administration needs. As time passes and no change is seen—especially if some of the new names in parliament cooperate with the mayor’s office—the symbolic victory being lauded right now could soon be forgotten.
The Kremlin wasn’t forced into a runoff in any of the gubernatorial elections, but that’s not to say that the protest mood has disappeared in certain regions, such as St. Petersburg, where the acting governor Alexander Beglov did better than expected, winning 64 percent of the vote.
But even with majorities in every regional legislative assembly except Khabarovsk, it’s clear from the campaigns that these victories are becoming harder and harder to secure: the authorities are having to increase the proportion of single-mandate districts and disguise United Russia candidates as independents.
The outcome of these elections, especially in Moscow and Khabarovsk, throws into question plans to reduce the proportion of seats in the State Duma allocated by party list voting in favor of more single-mandate districts ahead of elections to the federal parliament in 2021. It appears that when faced with a strong protest mood like in Khabarovsk, or heavily mobilized protests amid a low turnout like in Moscow, these maneuvers don’t help.
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