Sub-national elections in Russia

Elections for posts at various levels took place in the Russian Federation on Sunday, 9 September. Although the electoral campaigns were largely seen as “quiet and uncompetitive”, there were some setbacks for Kremlin-backed candidates. The same day, nation-wide protests against planned pension reforms resulted in more than 1,000 arrests.

Sunday was a busy day. There were:

  • 22 direct elections for regional heads, including the mayor of Moscow;
  • three indirect elections for regional heads;
  • a set of 16 elections for deputies of regional legislatures;
  • a set of 12 elections for seats in representative bodies of regional administrative centres;
  • four elections for heads of regional administrative centres;
  • and seven by-election races for seats in the State Duma – the lower chamber of the national-level parliament, the Federal Assembly.

This is a difficult time for President Vladimir Putin. In the middle of June 2018, the Government introduced a bill into the State Duma proposing to raise the retirement age for men and women – a move that was met with widespread criticism and anger from Russian citizens. This was reflected in Putin’s popularity. According to the Levada Centre – an independent polling body – Putin had an approval rating of 82% in April 2018. This, however, fell to 67% by July 2018. Support for United Russia – the Kremlin-controlled ‘party of power’ – fell even further. Although Putin made an address to the nation, proposing measures to soften the reform package, popular opposition to the amended initiative remains high.

These conditions made the Kremlin nervous in the run-up to 9 September election day. To be sure, the Kremlin has extensive experience in un-levelling the electoral playing field, through a combination of things like skewed media coverage, harassment of opposition figures, and outright electoral fraud. But there is still some degree of uncertainty. That is natural for a system of “sovereign democracy” or competitive authoritarianism.

Pension reform unease certainly affected the election results. The most interesting electoral results relate to run-off votes in four gubernatorial races. In Khabarovsk Krai, Khakassia, Vladimir Oblast, and Primorsk Krai, no candidate achieved the necessary 50% to secure victory in the first round of voting. This outcome was largely expected for the first three of these four cases. (For an overview of the electoral campaigns in the broader context of Russian politics, see my pre-elections interview for Bear Market Brief.) This will be an important moment to see whether nominally opposition parties – primarily, the Communist Party (KPRF) and the Liberal-Democratic Party (LDPR) – can join forces to defeat the Kremlin-backed candidates in second-round voting. It will also be an important moment to see whether voters will carry on their pension reform-related protest votes into the second round.

Much is being made of these second-round votes, given their previous infrequency. 2012 saw the re-introduction of direct gubernatorial elections. Although touted by the Kremlin as a key democratic reform, Putin’s team made sure the federal centre retained broad control over who ended up as regional heads. One such mechanism for control is called the “municipal filter” – a means to help block the candidacies of Kremlin-hostile figures. As a result, a second-round gubernatorial vote took place only once following 2012 – in 2015 in Irkutsk Oblast, when the Communist Party (KPRF) candidate, Sergei Levchenko, beat the sitting United Russia governor, Sergei Eroshchenko.

Results for regional assembly elections on Sunday also proved interesting. In three assembly races – in Khakassia, Irkutsk Oblast, and Ulyanovsk Oblast – United Russia came second to the Communist Party (KPRF) in the party-list portion of the vote. Moreover, in 11 of the 16 regional assembly elections, United Russia failed to achieve 50% or above in the party-list vote.

At the same time, even though KPRF achieved a plurality of party-list votes in elections for three regional legislatures, it achieved a majority of seats in none. For example, in Irkutsk Oblast’s regional assembly, of the 45 seats up for grabs, the Communists secured 18, compared to United Russia’s 17 – figures that include seats won both through the party-list and single-mandate-district races.

United Russia’s leadership put on a brave face when the election results became clear. Many of the difficult moments were anticipated, as was the low turnout. But the very public nature of electoral setbacks – regardless of the understandably difficult conditions fostered by an unpopular social policy reform – presents a challenge for the Kremlin. The current political elite – like many other such ruling groups in non-democracies – emphasises the importance of projecting strength as a means of perpetuating its rule. In combination with the country-wide, Navalny-orchestrated protests on 9 September, election results that go against the Kremlin’s wishes weaken that image of invincibility. The Kremlin will, therefore, do everything it can going forward to prevent a fusion of Navalny’s mobilising efforts with those of nominally ‘opposition’ political parties, as well as growing segments of Russian society who are bearing the brunt of difficult economic conditions.

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