This Sunday, local elections will take place all over Russia. The eyes of the whole country are of course on the mayoral race in Moscow, where Aleksei Navalny’s aggressive street campaign is up against acting mayor Sergei Sobyanin’s promise of more lobbying power. Yaroslavl is also hitting the headlines, with billionaire playboy Mikhail Prokhorov’s ‘Civil Platform’ party excluded from the elections and one of its members, the city’s mayor Yevgeny Urlashov, arrested. And in Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth largest city, Yevgeny Roizman, a controversial ‘anti-drugs’ campaigner and who is also a Prokhorov ally, has a good chance of winning. However, less newsworthy elections will be taking place in eighty other regions and republics of the Russian Federation, and what they show is how much Russian politics has changed in the last year.
Where is everybody?
The biggest change this year is that election day will not be the second Sunday in October, as before, but the second Sunday in September. For a northern country like Russia, this makes a big difference. Provincial officials have always groaned about having to give up part of their August holiday to make a start on election organisation, but this year the groans have turned into howls. With governors and city council chiefs cancelling all leave until after the elections, the usual trip to Sochi or a foreign beach resort has gone out the window.
A lorry bearing the United Russia logo distributes subsidized vegetables to voters in Chelyabinsk. The bear of United Russia is no longer the vote-winner it once was, but a rigged system and targeted freebies means that this will have little impact on the outcome of Sunday's election. Photo: http://chelyabinsk.er.ru/
Admittedly United Russia officials and activists have only been affected by this in regions closely controlled by Vladimir Putin and the party centre. In areas where the elections aren’t considered very important there’s not a lot of fuss at all. If a region hasn’t had a visitor from Moscow for two months, party functionaries conclude they have been forgotten about and go off to sun themselves on a beach, while their deputies, left in charge, start going home early and sometimes don’t turn up at the office at all, and the rest of the staff drop in for just a few hours a day. Then, out of the blue, an emissary from Moscow turns up at the United Russia office in a Siberian city. ‘Where is everybody?’ he asks in amazement. The two or three party workers who are still at their desks get on the phone; their boss and colleagues arrive; the security man hands out the office keys and they get down to work.
The bear’s too big!
Russia’s national parliament is elected through a party list system, but this system is used for only half the members of most regional legislatures, with the other half elected from single member constituencies. This year’s election campaign has aggravated a problem which has existed for some time: candidates nominated by United Russia try to hide this, and if that’s impossible, to play it down. ‘Can’t we make the bear smaller?’ asks Olga Gurbolikova, the United Russia candidate in the Zabaikalye area of Siberia. She has paid for some election banners out of her own pocket, showing her with her family and colleagues. The United Russia logo with its polar bear is going to look out of place, but the designers insist that it has to be there. In the end they stick it in a corner, in the hope that no one will notice it.
The United Russia polar bear logo is going to look out of place on Olga’s poster, but the designers insist that it has to be there. In the end they stick it in a corner, in the hope that no one will notice it.
Aleksei Navalny’s definition of United Russia as ‘the party of crooks and thieves’ may still not have reached small towns thousands of miles from Moscow, but the party now has a new problem to worry about. Its leader used to be Vladimir Putin: he made speeches in its support, and his face was synonymous with the party’s name. But now United Russia is led by Dmitry Medvedev, and the party’s election machine is having to use various ploys to disguise the fact. They constantly assert, for example, that theirs is the only party to follow ‘Putin’s Course’ – an analogy with popular slogans from Soviet times such as, ‘On course for Communism’ or ‘Lenin’s Way’.
United Russia does however still have ways of influencing voters that are unavailable to other parties. And I don’t mean television: in Russia today, especially outside Moscow, no one watches political programmes any more. But it can hand out freebie tee-shirts and baseball caps with the party logo to voters, especially young ones. Activists who distribute enough copies of the party newspaper can keep their logoed jackets. People in Moscow and St Petersburg would just laugh at such tactics, but students in the provinces are happy to wear stuff with a polar bear design on it. And older voters can be wooed with different freebies, such as good strong shopping bags and lids for glass preserving jars. Autumn in Russia is not just election season, but the time of year to harvest vegetables for keeping over winter. So all over Russia jars of gherkins, tomatoes and peppers are being sealed with lids printed with the United Russia polar bear. The joke going round is that even vegetables support the ruling party.
All over Russia jars of gherkins, tomatoes and peppers are being sealed with lids printed with the United Russia polar bear. The joke going round is that even vegetables support the ruling party.
If a local party branch has wealthy sponsors, then there are more and better freebies. At the start of the school year children can be given jotters, backpacks, pens and torches. The party also runs competitions whose lucky winners get dinner sets and basic kitchen equipment. Any other political party would have its entire candidate list excluded from the election for such blatant bribery, but United Russia gets away with just a verbal warning.
A ‘sheet’ and a confusion of communists
One more thing differentiates these elections from earlier ones. They are the first to take place after the political reforms initiated by Dmitry Medvedev. Only seven political parties contested the 2011 parliamentary elections, but on 8th September 2013 voters in some regions will have 15-20 parties to choose from. And it’s already clear that the new, simplified process for registering parties has done no harm to United Russia, but has seriously complicated things for its competitors.
Yevgeny Roizman's controversial anti-drug programmes may have isolated him from liberal Russia, but they have also made him very popular among the local population in Yekaterinburg. The not-quite-regime, not-quite-oppositionist politician has every chance for success in the race for mayor in this, Russia's fourth-largest city.
For example, as well as the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), which has been going for 15 years, two other ‘red‘ parties are now to be found on ballot papers: ‘The Communists of Russia’ and (believe it or not!) a resurrected CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union). Neither of these was set up to win any seats, merely to confuse voters and steal a few percent of votes from the CPRF. And the same goes for the ‘Civil Position’ party, whose job is to take votes away from Mikhail Prokhorov’s ‘Civil Platform’. Funnily enough, no one has been allowed to register a party called ‘United Rus’ or ‘United Russian Federation’ that could affect United Russia’s chances.
The spin doctors have christened a long ballot paper with twenty party names on it a ‘sheet’. Election campaign veterans believe that sheets like these are good news, rather than bad, for the ruling party. Faced with several communist parties with similar names, and then several liberal parties, the voters will plump for United Russia, which can’t be confused with any of its rivals.
The most reliable United Russia supporter – the courts
One way in which these elections are no different from previous ones is that constituency election committees, aided and abetted by the courts, are still excluding the ruling party’s most dangerous rivals from standing. In the Yaroslavl region, for instance, there was a real risk that the Prokhorov’s Civil Platform party would beat United Russia. So its entire candidate list was banned, on the pretext that the party had failed to open a bank account for its campaign (in fact because the police had detained the party member tasked with doing so and released her only after the deadline had passed).
In Zabaikalye the Civil Platform party wasn’t banned, but the candidate for Governor nominated by Vladimir Putin had a dangerous rival. Putin’s man, Konstantin Ilkovsky, was from the neighbouring region of Yakutia, but Aleksei Koshelyov was a local boy who had previously worked for the local authority and had money to attract sponsors to the region. So they threw him off the candidate list on a similar slight pretext. These cases are just examples of a new Kremlin regional policy of loyalty to weak official candidates and short shrift to people who might win more votes than the United Russia or direct Putin nominee.
How the country votes will only be revealed on 9th September, but it’s clear already that, with the exception of Moscow and Yekaterinburg, there can be no surprises. However fed up voters are with United Russia, they have been placed in a situation where there is no alternative to vote for. Some real, contested elections may still take place, but only in very small provincial towns out of sight of the government rottweilers.
In the case of Moscow, it will be sensation enough if the oppositional candidate were to attract a reasonably high vote. According to the current polling data, Alexei Navalny is unlikely to register more than 20 percent, while the incumbent Sergei Sobyanin is expected to attract about 60 percent. But when you take into account that Navalny’s rating stood at less than 10 percent just three months ago, this in itself is no mean achievement.
The ‘oppositional’ mayoral candidate in Yekaterinburg, Yevgeny Roizman, on the other hand, has every chance of victory. Even sociologists close to the local governor concede that Roizman has opened up a 2 percent gap with his nearest rival, the vice governor Yakov Silin. The ruling elite is clearly concerned: in the last few days, Roizman’s companies found themselves subjected to unannounced searches. So far the authorities have resisted radical action, like arrests and such like. And however uncomfortable it may get, with only five days left, there is no way Roizman can be removed from the race.