Political dialects: why Russia's regional elections matter

On March 13, Russia holds elections in twelve Russian regions — the last elections ahead of critical parliamentary and presidential elections. Nikolai Petrov suggests the results will give a good indication of the Kremlin’s control over electoral machinery and ability to monopolise political power

Nikolai Petrov
8 March 2011

The rapid succession of Russian elections – in recent years falling twice a year – reminds one of see-saws and roller-coasters, with a spring remission followed by an autumn relapse. During the spring 2009 remission elections were relatively honest (if not fair). In the autumn 2009 relapse they were neither honest nor fair. A further remission followed in the spring of 2010 and a relapse in the autumn of that year. Experts predict that the forthcoming 13 March elections will be better than those of last autumn, but worse than the ones held last spring.

What makes the current round of elections particularly important is the fact that they will be the last campaign before elections for the State Duma and the subsequent presidential election. It is, therefore, an opportunity – both for the Kremlin and for political parties – to synchronise their watches, test and evaluate their campaign strategies, and make the necessary adjustments in their plans for the big Duma campaign.

As is usual in case of a single election day, the forthcoming elections will affect some seventy regions. Some will involve by-elections for vacant seats, others contests for municipal council seats, and others still will elect mayors and members of legislative chambers. The key campaigns contest seats in regional parliaments. These will take place in 12 regions, including three republics (Adyghe, Dagestan, Komi), two autonomous districts (Chukotka and Khanty-Mansiisk) and seven regions: Kaliningrad, Tver, Kirov, Nizhny Novgorod, Kursk, Tambov and Orenburg. The Stavropol Territory and the Novosibirsk region, with elections across all cities and districts, are also quite important. In addition, about ten major regional centres will elect city chambers of deputies.

 Putin is taking active part in a regional campaign for the very first time

This will also be the first single election day without any mayoral contests in capital cities. In an attempt to strengthen the “power vertical”, the ruling party has managed to eliminate direct mayoral elections in around twenty regional capitals during the last year alone. The surviving elected mayors are serving out their final days. For example, in the current campaign, the Mayor of Vladivostok was removed by a gubernatorial decree; the idea of adopting a city manager model for that city is now under discussion.  

Only the four major parties with seats in the State Duma parties are fully represented in the regional parliament elections. The Russian Patriots – a party whose role is mainly that of a “spoiler” with regard to Just Russia and the Communist Party (CPRF) – have fielded candidates in six regions. Yabloko have candidates in two regions, and The Right Cause in one.  United Russia's election goal is to secure an absolute majority and the highest possible number of seats;  the CPRF aims to be the main opposition party, while the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) and Just Russia are struggling to survive as Duma parties, with the latter being the main target of administrative assaults.

Steam engines and personality politics

As a result of many years with an almost complete absence of public politics, all the parties are suffering from a lack of distinctive, recognisable personalities at the top of their candidate lists.  In the past, United Russia used governors as “steam engines” on whose trains candidates with a lower profile could be pushed through into regional parliaments. This has become more problematic following the large-scale replacement of governors who are genuine politicians with those who are merely administrators. This Sunday, “steam engine” governors are standing in only 7 out of 12 regions. Neither has United Russia found vivid politicians to remove the need for “steam trains”. (Incidentally, LDPR, which has traditionally faced similar problems, has placed Vladimir Zhirinovsky at the top of its party lists in 10 out of the 12 regions).

The outcomes of the lottery that determines the order in which individual parties appear on the ballots is an illustration of the power of so-called “administrative resources”. In every election in the past, United Russia has defied the theory of probability. This time around they have drawn the first slot in six out of twelve regional campaigns

Nikolai Petrov

In the absence of small “steam engines”, it has proven necessary to roll out the big one. For the first time the “national leader” and United Russia chairman Vladimir Putin is taking active part in a regional campaign. He has been visiting election regions, holding meetings with professional groups and party activists, as well as with the public. Over the past four or five weeks alone he has paid visits to the regions of Orenburg (27 January), Kirov (3 February), Kaliningrad (23 February) and Tambov (2 March). If the main purpose of his visits is to use the Prime Minister's personal weight to shore up the regions lacking a strong gubernatorial presence, the Kursk and Tver regions are likely to be next on Mr. Putin's itinerary. 

The curse of adminstrative resources

Data published by the Central Electoral Committee show that out of 55,700 candidates standing for election by far the largest number – 22,700 – comprises independents and candidates fielded by United Russia (20,500), which is contesting 99.6% of all seats, followed, after a large gap, by the remaining six parties. The picture changes dramatically when one looks at candidates who have been refused registration. Of the total 7.8% (4,400) of candidates not registered, 45% were fielded by Yabloko, 20% by Russian Patriots, 14.6% were independents; 5-6% had been put forward by LDPR, Just Russia and CPRF each, and 0.8% by United Russia.

The outcomes of the lottery that determines the order in which individual parties appear on the ballots is an illustration of the power of so-called “administrative resources” [the use of governmental privilege to influence the result of elections]. In every election in the past, United Russia has defied the theory of probability. This time around they have drawn the first slot in six out of twelve regional parliament campaigns. Just Russia and Russian Patriots have drawn three top slots each; CPRF, LDPR, Yabloko and the Right Cause have not drawn a single top slot. 

The forthcoming election on 13 March will undoubtedly have a few nasty surprises in store for the government. This is likely to happen in the rebellious Kaliningrad Region; in the Khanty-Mansiisk District where there have been local conflicts with the new regional government; and in Vladimir and a number of other cities. Nevertheless, United Russia is likely to meet most of its targets. 

December’s parliamentary elections: not so straightforward

However, all this is less important than what happens in December with the Duma parliamentary elections and the presidential election in March of next year.

As far as the Duma elections go, the latest data available indicates that United Russia will win 45-50% of the vote in the State Duma elections, which thanks to a 7% voting threshold will translate into 65-70% of the seats. It would seem, therefore, that unless something extraordinary happens, United Russia will again enjoy a constitutional majority in the next Duma. 

Things are not, however, so straightforward. 

First, nationwide surveys and sociologists who carry them out have not taken into consideration major shifts that have taken place since the last elections in two types of region: those where the dismissal of a heavyweight governor resulted in the dismantling of the political machinery (as is the case in Moscow, Bashkortostan, Tatarstan and the Rostov Region, which between them provided United Russia with nearly a fifth of all its votes), and those with a sharp rise in negative attitudes towards the authorities (this, again, includes Moscow as well as the Kaliningrad, Sverdlovsk and Irkutsk Regions, Kamchatka and the Maritime Territory, which accounted for one-seventh of the vote). In all these regions support for United Russia has sagged substantially. Of particular significance is Moscow, a city which according to recent polls has been steadily turning from one of the most conformist regions into the capital of electoral protest it used to be in the perestroika years. 

Moscow has been steadily turning into a capital of electoral protest. Any marked decline in its showing there would be humiliating for the “party of power”.  Photo: flickr/cavin

The second point to make is that even if the total of United Russia's losses is not significant, a decline in its support in Moscow and a number of major centres will be humiliating for the “party of power”. Even in the 2010 autumn elections, United Russia's results in a number of centres such as Novosibirsk, Tomsk and Izhevsk barely exceeded 40%.

Presidential elections & party politics 

The March 2012 elections present a different set of dynamics. On the one hand, they will not pose any serious problem for the chosen Kremlin candidate. On another, they will usher in the beginning of a new political era. The inevitable overhaul of social policy, including the abandonment of many expensive social benefits – already a huge strain on the budget but retained because of the elections – will bring about a major change in the pattern of relations between the government and the people. 

In this new scenario, the role of parties will also have to increase significantly. At present major parties are essentially electoral vehicles, serving as tools for ensuring government control over parliaments and chambers of deputies. Following the 2012 elections they will instead be required to function as mechanisms of cooperation between citizens and the government. In their current form they are totally unsuited to play this new role, and the Kremlin — which tends to tackle each problem on an ad hoc basis — has not yet done anything to prepare to deal with this. Creating a facilitator party that will command authority and confidence takes a lot longer than creating a simple election vehicle. And when the Kremlin finally becomes seriously concerned about this issue, it may just find itself short of time. 

The current campaign is of course indicative of a wider crisis in the electoral system. Elections in Russia no longer dictate agendas or serve as platforms for finessing programmes. They do not provide much feedback between the citizens and the regime, nor do they offer serious alternatives with respect to public policies or training grounds for politicians. They do not even play the role of a safety-valve for letting off steam. And as administrative control over elections increases, the elections become less able to fulfil the one remaining role of legitimising the regime. 

The party system is also in deep crisis. Here the problem is not so much the individual parties as the entire party architecture, which has become politically as well as  morally obsolete.



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