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An anatomy of defeat: what happened at the Moscow city elections

In Moscow, the people came to the ballot box and broke the back-room agreements of the elite.

Alexander Zamyatin
16 September 2019
Sergey Zverev, an "independent" candidate at the Moscow city election.
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Source: Shtab Zyuzino

Were the Moscow City Council elections a success for the opposition? Several commentators are inclined to say no. The ruling United Russia party still managed to retain its majority in the city council, and this means that it can continue its quiet verification of mayor Sergey Sobyanin’s initiatives. Moreover, with a few exceptions, 20 seats went to representatives of Russia’s “systemic opposition” parties, whom we cannot expect to engage in full-on confrontation with the city executive. And independent candidates - who went out and collected thousands of signatures to register their candidacies - didn’t end up on the ballot papers. It’s clear that we won’t be seeing the Moscow City Council instantly transform into a parliament capable of drilling a hole into the very heart of Russia’s authoritarian regime.

Still, these elections have given us three fundamental political results. First, the election was a victory of grassroots mobilisation over “administrative resources”. Public officials at local prefectures worked hard over the past six months to ensure the victory of pro-regime candidates in the city - taking part in candidates’ courtyard meetings with residents, carrying out new improvements to public buildings against planning permission, forcing street sweepers to hand out leaflets and agitprop, removing election notices from competitors and so on. It was very important to public officials that candidates who had been approved by the Mayor’s Office made it through the elections. But Muscovites came to the ballot box and broke the back-room agreements of the city elite. In conditions of total civic apathy and depoliticisation, this is an invaluable experience.

Moreover, this experience will be a lesson to those who hope to enter the City Council against the electorate’s will, via secret agreements. The Moscow head of the Just Russia party, a systemic opposition force, looks particularly comic in this respect. Alexander Romanovich lost in a constituency that had been prepared especially for him. Not only that, Romanovich was forced to appear in a photograph with Alexander Solovyev, a spoiler candidate from his own party in another constituency - all in service of confirming that Solovyev, who had not engaged in any campaigning whatsoever, actually existed. Indeed, Solovyev-the-spoiler candidate won off the back of a consolidated protest vote, and against the plans of the mayor’s office.

Administrative candidates are used to taking an absolute majority, which has given Moscow public officials a reason to feel comfortable. An apparent “majority” of Muscovites approves their work, the story goes, and the only people who protest are a bunch of marginals. Now it’s clear that this isn’t the case. If we look at the numbers, we can see that administrative candidates took 555,000 votes against 586,000 votes for candidates with a protest agenda. This message from voters has a clear meaning: people demand representation, they’ve had enough of public officials making decisions for them about how and where they can live. You ignore a petition with 2,500 signatures against property development at Bitsa park in south Moscow, fine, but we’ll come to the next election and you’ll lose your seat. You tell us that our opinion over the fate of a local maternity hospital doesn’t matter, that’s great - we’ll put you in your place and remind you who’s boss.

Second, the end of United Russia is no longer a prognosis, but a reality. Even with all the electoral falsifications, access to administrative resources and the shortcomings of the independent candidates, they still lose. In Moscow, United Russia is now a minority party, and one that is losing masses of its pliable electorate and revealing its own disintegration. This process has long-term consequences, which we’ll see in two years’ time at the parliamentary elections.

Third, the system parties which won at the city council elections might not survive what comes next - their existence in its current form relies on a fatal contradiction. On the one hand, they need to perform the role of the opposition and respond to people’s desire for an anti-elite protest vote. On the other, they need to remain under Kremlin control and not exceed the limits of the permissible. These parties are completely at home when they take second place and below on election day, but when they start taking first place, disaffection emerges internally. A significant chunk of the Communist Party are politicians with real ambition who want to take power when the system begins to collapse. Another section of the Communists, which is more influential, maintains its stance of complete refusal of that ambition and the same-old backroom alliances with the Kremlin. The first group are happy at the new council seats and are strengthening their positions, while the arrival of new council members is a headache for the second group.

One constituency

The loss of United Russia candidate Sergey Zverev could prove particularly telling in terms of the above. Zverev was in charge of urban planning at the Moscow City Council, and his constituency (the districts of North Chertanovo, Nagornyi and eastern half of Zyuzino) is hardly opposition-minded. In Northern Chertanovo and Nagornyi, the district councils are run by United Russia, and in Zyuzino (where I am a municipal deputy) they have half of the seats. Zverev, who’s been in the city council since 2009, has a weight administrative and party career behind him. He’s worked in the Moscow government since the 1990s and has even been a department chief. Now he’s the deputy secretary of the political department in the Moscow branch of United Russia, and head of Dmitry Medvedev’s public reception office in the city.

The system parties which won at the city council elections might not survive what comes next - their existence in its current form relies on a fatal contradiction

After the forced removal of independent candidate Konstantin Yankauskas, the only real competitor for Zverev could have been the Communist candidate, Lyubov Nikitina. She has no background in local politics, and she appeared in the constituency as a party functionary only six months ago, during a campaign to save a local maternity hospital. The Communists have never had a high rating in this constituency, and at the last elections to the Moscow City Council, their candidate took second place by one percent of the vote, against a challenger from the liberal Yabloko party.

By election day, we were left with a battle between a powerful United Russia incumbent with ties to the Moscow elite and a hardly-known “second place candidate” from the Communists, who no one believed had any ambition. But in the end, Nikitina took more votes than Zverev (44% against 29%), even though at the last election he’d had the best result in Moscow - more than 50% of the turnout.

This result became possible thanks to several factors typical of Moscow. First, the overall drop in approval for United Russia, which was visible at the regional elections a year ago. This had to be followed by an organic loss of votes for pro-regime candidates, which is exactly what happened with Zverev, who lost nearly half his previous votes. Political technologists connected to the Mayor’s Office were prepared for this: they made all United Russia candidates run as independents, collecting signatures for registration in order to weaken their association with the increasing unpopular party.

Vladimir Putin votes in the Moscow City Council election | Source: Kremlin.ru.

This trick with the “pseudo-independent” candidates failed for two reasons. First, they didn’t carry out any real signature collection. Thus, agitators and signature collectors from Konstantin Yankauskas spent the whole of June “in the field”, while Zverev’s election team imitated signature collection in several public places. The fake signatures in support of Zverev quickly became public knowledge, but this didn’t stop the electoral commission from registering him. By that time, it was impossible to sell Zverev as an independent to local voters. Second, the politically active section of the local electorate was angry right from the beginning that the former United Russia candidate was trying to hide his party allegiance. In response, a genuinely popular campaign emerged to inform local people of the truth, with people putting stickers (“Be careful! This is a United Russia candidate”) on Zverev’s posters around the neighbourhood.

The second decisive factor in Zverev’s defeat was the work of Yankausksas’ team in mobilising people to participate in the “Smart Voting” programme - voting for the second candidate in order to displace the favourite from the Mayor’s Office.

Yankauskas, a local politician with experience and team of local supporters, collected the necessary number of supporting signatures to register as an independent candidate, which purely at a technical level could not fail to raise his visibility in the constituency. But then came a mass refusal to register independent candidates, which lead to a city-wide protest. As a result, Yankauskas himself spent 26 days under arrest for participating in city rallies and was released only at the end of August. In that time, his team started campaigning for a consolidated protest vote. For several weeks, his team called on his supporters to vote for Communist candidate Lyubov Nikitina. After release, Yankauskas himself publicly supported this move.

In the majority of constituencies, the Communists ran weak campaigns - clearly, they weren’t counting on winning

The third factor was the campaign of Nikitina herself. In the majority of constituencies, the Communists ran weak campaigns - clearly, they weren’t counting on winning. Nikitina’s team saw that the mood was changing and took the initiative, and went far enough to provoke an administrative response. In the last weeks of the election campaign, a black PR campaign against Nikitina tried linking her to Alexey Navalny, or presenting her as a “wealthy adventurer”. Street sweepers removed her posters and leaflets, and provocateurs started turning up to her public meetings. Nikitina’s team responded by increasing their campaign and directly accusing Zverev of not playing by the rules. As a result, the Communists risked leaving the comfort zone of a controlled opposition party, coming into conflict with the local party branch. This is a valuable political lesson for the Communists, and a telling example of the contradictions of Russia’s systemic opposition.

Observation rules

Last but not least, election observers played a decisive role on election night. Given all the above, it was clear that the United Russia candidate, Zverev, was at risk of losing the election and only falsifications at the vote count could save him. The electoral commissions themselves are drawn from public officials - employees of public committees and prefectures - and they are based in the same buildings as official institutions.

In this situation, coordinating election observers was critical. A large number of independent observers has come together in this constituency, which have already defended against falsifications at the ballot box. This time, there were only two ways of authorising observers at polling stations - approval from candidates or political parties. And the only candidate who agreed to approve local observers was Nikitina, as it was clearly in her interests.

When the first vote counts began to come out on the evening of 8 September, it was clear that our expectations were right. Zverev was losing, and the electoral commissions began drawing out the process of entering the results into the digital voting system, where it is impossible to rewrite the numbers. All independent candidates were ready for this development and forced electoral commission members to follow procedure until morning. There are no doubts that without observers present, at least a third of the polling station committees would have been able to rewrite the vote count sheets and change the election results. But the satisfaction of collective political action, which election observers definitely experienced this time, will have no less a powerful effect than the joy of voters at having burst into the backroom deals of the Moscow elite.

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