Russia's silent election campaign

Russia goes to the polls on Sunday for parliamentary elections, yet Grigorii Golosov has failed to notice much of a campaign. Rather than presenting a case in a traditional electoral manner, it seems the authorities have settled on a different formula: mobilising state-dependent citizens and denying voters a relevant alternative.

My telephone rang.  I picked up the received to hear a tired female voice ask for my wife.  She was out, so I asked if I could give her a message. The voice explained the call was from the Council of Veterans.  This is a civic organisation patronised by the government, which is mainly concerned with the distribution of various benefits from the municipal budget to the elderly. As my wife is nowhere near pensionable age, I was quite intrigued.  The voice carried on. ‘If you have small children, we can let you have tickets for the circus.  Free.’ 

Pensioners meet with pension fund representatives and officials of United Russia in Moscow. A constituency heavily reliant on the state, the elderly are an obvious target for mobilising the UR vote. Everything immediately became clear.  Were my wife to go and collect some tickets, she would also be given some ‘United Russia’ campaign material, together with a firm assurance that this was the party which had made the distribution of the free tickets possible.  Then, of course, there would be a pressing recommendation to turn out at the election .... and to vote for ‘United Russia’.

This is just a small example of how the electorate has been organised so that ‘United Russia’ receives the majority vote in Sunday’s parliamentary elections. Opinion polls have shown that the popularity of the government party has been declining, at least since the beginning of 2010.  It still has the support of most of the population, but during that time the level of its support has dropped by approximately 10% (now 40-45% of the total number of respondents), and that number is still on the wane. In these conditions, support for ‘United Russia’ comes chiefly from those voters who will turn out because they have been specially mobilised, rather than from political conviction.

Mobilising the voters 

Specially mobilised voters fall into several categories. The one factor they all have in common is dependence on the state – either because they want some kind of benefit from the authorities or because the authorities have the power to influence their behaviour at the ballot box.  To list some of them:

  • the military – in Russia, a significant category, many of whom vote at specially established military units.  Even where this is not the case, the military commanders organise them to turn out at elections and are able to ensure that they vote for ‘United Russia’ and no one else;
  • patients in hospital, of whom the overwhelming majority are government supporters;
  • public bodies such as the Council of Veterans and Social Services take care of pensioner voting -  the pensioners receive financial assistance from the state and presents, a basket of various food items, for instance;
  • schools play an important part in mobilising voters. Campaigning in educational institutions is forbidden by law, but for ‘United Russia’ this ban has long since been ignored.  Teachers constantly remind parents of the need to vote: they talk about it at the parents’ evenings, they ring the parents at home and discuss the subject in class with the children. In higher education institutions, a lot of effort is put into mobilising the students, who are compelled to apply for absentee voting certificates where they live and vote at specially set up polling stations;
  • public sector employees are an obvious target group for special mobilisation, but recently this practice has been extended to the private sector as well.  Employers have been demanding that their employees vote for ‘United Russia’, often making it clear that if they don’t, they are likely to lose their bonus. Some employers even expect their staff to photograph their completed ballot paper on their mobile phone.

This system for mobilising the voters has been refined over many years and is now quite sophisticated.  According to analysts, some 30-40% of Russian voters come to the polling station for reasons that are not political. They have been mobilised to vote for ‘United Russia’, and most do, though more often than not the authorities are not in a position to monitor their behaviour. The demand to see photo evidence of voting, for example, can be got round by photographing the completed ballot paper and then spoiling it. 

The lack of a credible alternative is the reason why the growing unpopularity of the government is unlikely to be reflected in poll figures. Parties such as Vladimir Zhirinovksy's LDPR (pictured), the Communists and the post-Prokhorov "Right Cause" are widely considered to be stool pigeons for the regime.

The important thing to bear in mind is that most of these voters do not turn out specially to vote for ‘United Russia’. On the whole they don’t regard the election as an election: they see their participation in it as part of a special contract.

Politically motivated voters 

For the majority of Russian voters, however, political considerations are important, and with these voters too something has to be done. There are two possibilities: the best is if they turn out and vote for ‘United Russia’; less attractive, but also quite acceptable, is a no-show.  Both these possibilities are predicated on the special configuration of the Russian party system, which the authorities have been developing doggedly over the past decade.

‘Polls have shown that there is growing irritation with government corruption, their arrogance and inability to carry out the simplest managerial function in a way that is acceptable. However, for this irritation to be converted into a new mode of electoral behaviour, there would have to be acceptable alternatives.’ 

The contract between the Russian political regime and the population has always been based on the unspoken understanding that the authorities guarantee an appreciable rise in living standards and don’t interfere in people’s private lives. In return the populace limits any influence it could have on politics to periodically turning out to vote for Putin, Medvedev and their party. A significant section of the population considers that this contract is currently not being fulfilled, or not completely.  Polls have shown that there is growing irritation with government corruption, their arrogance and inability to carry out the simplest managerial function in a way that is acceptable. However, for this irritation to be converted into a new mode of electoral behaviour, there would have to be acceptable alternatives. 

An unconvincing alternative

 The intricacies of the Russian party system mean that for most people there are no such alternatives.  As far back as the 90s, opposition politics were to a certain extent discredited by the singular institutional arrangements which Boris Yeltsin’s advisers set up after his defeat of parliament in 1993.  Real power in Russia lies with the executive, which has always kept its door closed to the opposition parties. Parliament has no chance of influencing any managerial decisions, nor any obvious power to control them. The limitations extend even to its legislative functions because in many cases laws are made by presidential decree or orders from other officials. This is the origin of the argument endlessly repeated by official propaganda, which many find quite convincing: ‘The government is the only institution that functions: if anything positive happens, then it’s down to them. The opposition does nothing but criticise.  Well, you try and do something, then you can criticise.’ The fact that the rules of the game make it impossible for opposition parties to do anything at all is, naturally, left unsaid. 

It might be thought that the opposition’s ability to criticise would be reason enough to support it at the ballot box. Unfortunately, the “legal” opposition (those that have been registered) can hardly execute such an ability, because all the 6 official opposition parties are under the control of the executive.  Firstly, it is no secret (though never officially admitted) that these parties may only accept large private donations with the permission of the Presidential Administration. Secondly, the Administration controls the list of candidates put forward by these parties.  There is a large (and growing) blacklist of politicians, whose inclusion on party lists would invoke immediate sanctions. Thirdly, even slightly critical comments can be easily re-classified as “extremism and/or stirring up hatred towards individual social groups” under Russian legislation. 

‘The fact that [the opposition] are niche parties intentionally leaves a significant part of the electorate without an acceptable choice. Some politically motivated voters, having considered all their options, conclude that ‘United Russia’ represents the least evil and vote for it.’

With no chance to conduct an aggressive campaign based on biting criticism of the government, the opposition parties lose the possibility of appealing to the electorate as a whole and, therefore, of counting on their support. Instead, the strongest of them appeal to narrow target groups whom they justly regard as loyal and, consequently, a guarantee of some kind of representation. Russia’s largest opposition party is the Communist Party (CPRF): social and protectionist sentiments are very common throughout Russia, so this party could have a good chance of rousing the voters.  But this remains uncalled for. The CPRF electioneering is archaic and shot through with ideological values which are of no interest whatsoever to most of the electorate.  The long-time leader, Gennady Zyuganov, evokes a strong feeling of rejection in many people and is an anachronism.  But the ideology and the leader are both essential to the CPRF in its struggle to hold on to its nucleus of voters and the party has no ambition to go beyond this nucleus, because it’s quite clear that any such attempt would immediately be stamped on by the government. 

The Russian opposition parties are thus unconvincing to voters for two reasons.  Firstly, it’s not clear that they are actually in opposition: many voters quite justifiably consider them stool pigeons.  Secondly, the fact that they are niche parties intentionally leaves a significant part of the electorate without an acceptable choice. Some politically motivated voters, having considered all their options, conclude that ‘United Russia’ represents the least evil and vote for it.  Others simply refuse to turn up at the polling station.

This is why the main defining feature of the current election campaign is its silence. The government makes enormous efforts to bring specially mobilised voters to the polls, but is not particularly concerned to involve other categories of the population at all. Party campaigning is lacklustre and attracts little attention. Party leaders’ appearances on TV – the main political instrument in today’s Russia – are unnoticed.  The only public space seething with political passion is the internet. The opinions of ‘United Russia’ most prevalent in blogs and social networks are extremely critical.

But the circle of politicised internet users in Russia is a narrow one. It may have started influencing voter behaviour, but this influence should certainly not be over-estimated.  The Russian government has good enough grounds to be confident that the political machine it has built up while in power will not let it down. And if it should do so, then the election results can always be ‘adjusted’. 

 

Thumbnail picture credit: Demotix/Elena Ignatyeva. All rights reserved. 

About the author

Grigorii Golosov is Professor of Political Science, Project Director, Center for Democracy and Human Rights Helix, St. Petersburg