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Russian regional elections: business as usual

Voting at the recent local elections in Orenburg Oblast was listless and perfunctory. Voters don’t know the candidates, who in their turn make no attempt to remedy the situation, so why should people turn out to vote for them? Elena Strelnikova tries to make sense of the election process
Elena Strelnikova
17 November 2010

- “Well I think they’re right to go on strike!!!!

- “What’s the point?!! The government will take whatever decision it wants, whether they strike or not. And the French are still going to have to work for an extra two years.”

- “At least they try to resist - we don’t even make a noise…”

My husband and son-in-law were discussing the French revolt against raising the pension age. A protest meeting in the kitchen, a la Russe. But where is Orenburg, and where is France?! Of course, we are also in Europe, and our Oblast is big enough to fit in several European countries. Of course, pension problems bring us closer together. In Russia, the pension age for men is now 60, and for women 55.  Our government is always hinting that it too is going to raise the pension age. But who for? The average life expectancy for men in our Oblast is 58, and for women 71. You could of course heap everything on women’s frail shoulders…but the burden on them is already considerable. In any case, it is unlikely that people in Russia will resist an increase in the pension age as actively as they did in France… even if they live to that age… just in the kitchen, perhaps. We have no initiative any more.

Orenburg map

Judge for yourself: on the unique day of the three 10s (10/10/10) the whole Oblast elected its government. It elected them all right, but rather listlessly… You might say it went through the motions of electing them, though the turnout was only 30%. Quite honestly, I’m surprised it was as high as that. It was probably the result of a fair amount of lobbying and other pressure. Apparently at factories, the shift was moved to two hours later. The goal was a worthy one: to give the people the chance to exercise their rights to vote. Only they didn’t give a fig for this right. They slept in, and didn’t turn out to vote. But the order at the factory was to report to the boss and they reported: I voted, so did my family, and all my friends too. That’s how conscientious we are! You know that if you don’t ring up and report, they’ll cut your salary!

But still, almost none of my friends went to vote… My husband said that when the option “against all candidates” was removed, there was no longer any choice. He was deprived of the opportunity to express himself. When I asked a friend of mine why she hadn’t voted, she answered honestly: “I don’t know any of the people. No one came to call on us at home, or brought leaflets or made promises. They don’t seem to need my vote. Why should I waste my time voting for them?”

On that day, only my daughters’ nanny and I engaged in any electoral activity. She did it because she grew up under Communism, when the party said “You must!” and the Komsomol replied “We will!” As for me, well I had to go to work anyway and, once out of the house, I also went to vote. Fortunately the polling station was not far away. I ticked the box opposite the name of the candidate I like and put the paper in the wooden box.

At the next door polling station, they had modern boxes. They even had special names – complexes for processing electoral ballots - but all these fancy electronics only caused more confusion. Firstly, Orenburgers couldn’t understand how to position the bulletin so that the clever machine could read it properly.  Then observers doubted the honesty of the vote counting, and forced the electoral commission to recount votes manually for 30 of the 50 machines. As a result, for the first time the vote count dragged on into the middle of the night. The regional electoral committee received hourly reports, but all unconfirmed. The local media couldn’t give Orenburgers a full picture of the results until as late as the afternoon of the next day. In one district, the name of the winner was announced, but it was later discovered that after final calculations he had lost by 43 votes.

Incidentally, in the countryside they really had fun with these elections. The candidates came up with all kinds of ideas. They gave skis to schools, and held hunger strikes (starting in the morning and ending at night). They brought light to dark village streets for one day to buy votes (the prosecutor’s office turned them off the next day).

In Abdulino, the elections were regarded as manna from heaven. There was the promise of a bathhouse! People hadn’t washed properly in two years. At last they had lived to see the day! The bath house was opened with ceremony, with applause and words of gratitude to the authorities. In one day, 160 people washed themselves – and then the bathhouse was closed. It turned out that the documents were not ready. The fire inspection, sanitary and epidemic inspection, and gas inspectors hadn’t signed anything. So the people of Abdulino went back to washing in washtubs… What a shame!

However, elections in rural areas are an inexpensive pleasure. If candidates in the city have to spend a lot (playgrounds, putting trees in small squares and mini swimming pools cost a considerable amount), in the country they can spend a few thousand rubles, at most 10,000. The people in the countryside listen to every word and really believe that Vladimir Putin personally shook the candidates’ hands before the elections and gave them a pep talk. Some still suspect that this looks a bit like Photoshop, but in their hearts they are actually delighted: what an important person my fellow countryman is! It would be wrong not to vote for him!

On polling day the people’s representatives also had a ball! They say that in Orsk, people in white coats (a reference to a candidate who was a doctor) were handing out pure alcohol to people at the entrance to the polling booth. In Orenburg, voters were offered a pilgrimage to holy places. The latest elections in the Orenburg Oblast have been called the most scandalous in recent years: voting papers were dumped, “dead souls” [voting for names in the electoral register who have died] and a “carousel” [voter goes into booth with marked paper, comes out with clean paper and hands it to the ‘organiser’ for money or drink]. The prosecutor’s office investigates each complaint. It’s not difficult to see why there were such scandalous goings-on: people don’t know their members of parliament, and don’t want to. They stand on the side, looking on: will there be a fight or will they manage to arrive at a consensus? Will the party of power crush everyone, or will the opposition get in?

I almost forget to say how beautiful it was here on the streets and districts of the Oblast. During the electoral campaign, the large “United Russia” party made a point of stressing its main slogan, “Stability and Order”. They didn’t bother with other slogans, just hung the poster all over the city (there were 12 banners on 3 km of the main road), and waited confidently for a positive result.

Orenburg bridge

Bridge across the river Ural, a border between Europe and Asia. The city of Orenburg can be said to lie in two continents (photo: Wikimedia)

At the same time, the opposition tried to play off the situation from various sides. They didn’t put many banners along the roads, but the ones they did were impressive! For example, the Communist Party even quoted Che Guevara on its red and white posters: “The laws of capitalism… influence people’s characters in ways that cannot even be guessed”.

Or the traditionally communist: “Bourgeois, temper your desires! Give the people back their wealth!”  On this poster a soldier in a red cap is pointing at the banner of the LDPR [Liberal Democracy party] candidate that bears the slogan: “Stop being slaves in the galleys of a new class, their toadies and their henchmen!”

Why didn’t they all just share? Are they planning to steal each other’s riches? Or did fate just decide to set them against each other? Or were there some intrigues hidden somewhere?

The LDPR again: “Vote for the LDPR! Or keep suffering…” Just Russia: “Time to exchange unscrupulous (permanent, indifferent) deputies for fair ones!” And again, the poster shows a young worker bravely pushing fat officials or bulky representatives of the people out of the way.

The single-mandate members of United Russia also join in: “Work for the strong! Care for the weak!” “Your dream job, a happy family and healthy children!”  “Our goal is to value every family!”

To be quite honest, I don’t see much difference between all these rather forced statements. They’re as alike as brothers (if not identical twins). As you drive around the city, you can see: it’s beautiful there and not bad here, but essentially it’s all the same. My family was right: we don’t know who these people are, there seems to be a choice, but there is no one to choose from. Incidentally, United Russia didn’t manage to pass the 50% barrier in Orenburg this year. For the first time the city legislative assembly has representatives from all four Russian parties, although the party of power polled the majority of votes, of course.

Do you know what Orenburg residents are actively discussing today, a few weeks after the elections? Not 4 November (the Day of National Unity, which many Russians still believe was forced on them by the higher authorities). Not Revolution Day on 7 November (although the memory of it lives on, and the Communists still organise small demonstrations). French pension reform has also taken a back seat. At every table in Orenburg, you can hear people saying: “Did you hear that Chernomyrdin died? He was a good man. Salt of the earth. He was one of us, from Orenburg. He really did things for us here in his region! The roads are great! He built a church in his native village, as well as a hospital, he modernized the school and didn’t forget agriculture either. He was the Prime Minister of Russia and ambassador to Ukraine, but he didn’t forget his roots!”

It makes you feel like summing up the elections with a Chernomyrdin phrase: “We wanted everything to be done as well as possible, but it turned out as usual”.

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