Sprinting for votes: Russia prepares for a year of elections

Russia is on the verge of election season. While simmering social tensions and a nervous elite make these interesting times, no-one really doubts United Russia will sweep a national victory. The interesting battles will be in local and city elections, writes Mikhail Loginov.

Mikhail Loginov
15 December 2010

In May 2010, the Russian State Duma passed a law prohibiting any consumption of alcohol for drivers. The law was controversial, and created problems not so much for people who like a drink, but for those who take alcohol-based medicine. Officially, the lower chamber of the Russian parliament passed the law unanimously, with 449 people voting in favour. There were, in fact, only 88 deputies in the hall. They ran around from row to row, inserting their cards and voting for their absent comrades.

The story of how 88 breathless deputies, less than a fifth of the State Duma, passed a law that was important for millions of their fellow citizens, is a symbol of contemporary Russian parliamentarianism. “Parliament is no place for discussions,” State Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov once said. Possibilities for individual lobbying work are reduced to a minimum. This is why deputies don’t go to the State Duma: there is nothing for them to do there, and their comrades in the party can use their cards to vote.

Russian duma deputies vote in an important reform on drink driving. With such minimal influence over decision making, is it really surprising so few show up to vote?

Voters know that deputies have no influence on anything. But they still go to the polls. Firstly, unlike the deputies, they only have to vote once every four years, and from 2011 they will vote every five years. Secondly, there are numerous methods and techniques to lure voters to polling booths, and ensure a majority of votes for United Russia.

The deputies thrown down the stairs and bribed

In the 1990s, elections and the work of the Russian parliament could be called many things, but never boring. There was the concept of the minimum turnout, and the possibility of voting “against all”. If there were people on the ballot who were profoundly unattractive to the voters, or unknown to them, then “against all” would win.

A seat had to be worked for. During the election campaign, candidates had meetings with voters. Only a small section of the population had any interest in party programmes, so what was important was the candidates’ personal charm, their ability to present their biography favourably, and to show that they were better than their rivals. Until the mid-90s, American political spin doctors worked in Russia, but soon Russian specialists appeared and supplanted their foreign rivals.

As well as ordinary campaigning, there was the direct bribing of voters, sometimes long before the campaign began. For example, Vladimir Zhirinovsky travelled across Russia by train, got out at stations, talked with local residents and handed out money to them.

The unmanageable Duma caused the government numerous problems. Ministers sometimes fought with deputies. Yegor Gaidar once threw a member of the Communist Party down the stairs for speaking disparagingly about his grandfather, a commander during the Civil War and a famous children’s writer. But more frequently, ministers had to bribe deputies so that they voted for the necessary laws, for example approving the annual budget.

If you don't vote, you're an idiot!

When Putin came to power, the situation changed swiftly and fundamentally. The new president decided that deputies should be neither persuaded nor bribed, but taken under strict control. Over four years, the State Duma changed beyond recognition. The minimum turnout was abolished, as was the popular voting option “against all”. In 2007, elections for single-mandate districts became a thing of the past, and it was only possible to vote for parties. Forming electoral associations before the election was forbidden, and the law ruled out the registration of new parties.

The Duma became predictable and dull. But the Kremlin could not allow voter turnout to fall significantly lower than in the “crazy 90s”. On the contrary, regional electoral commissions were deliberately set the task of achieving better figures than at previous elections. United Russia was naturally supposed to receive the majority of votes.

Electoral commissions, from district level upwards, frequently falsified the results. In some regions of the country, especially in the republics of the Volga area and in the North Caucasus, the turnout approached 100%, and United Russia received more than 100% of the vote. At the beginning of December this year, Ingushetian President Yunus-Bek Yevkurov announced that he would forbid the skewing of the United Russia results at the next elections, “otherwise we will get 195% or higher”. His fellow presidents are in no hurry to take on these obligations.

Apart from altering documents, there are ways of working directly with voters. The use of official positions or connections to influence the outcome of the election or “administrative resource” is deployed – bosses of enterprises order their subordinates to come to the polling booth and “make the right choice” – i.e. give their votes to United Russia. Less disciplined young people are attracted with small gifts, for example free tickets to concerts and dance evenings – the programme “Vote and dance”.

Additionally, youth movements that support Putin sometimes resort to extravagant campaigning methods. At the last Duma elections, they handed out leaflets in towns of the Moscow Oblast. The message was that in Ancient Greece, a person who was not interested in politics was considered an idiot, so people who did not want to go to the polls and vote were idiots.

Lawyers versus the Pirates of the Caribbean 

State Duma elections lack interest and unpredictability. Everyone knows that United Russia will win. Direct elections of governors have been abolished in Russia. New heads of regions are appointed by the Kremlin, and approved by regional parliaments, so elections in Oblasts and republics of Russia are under strict Kremlin control. United Russia traditionally wins: its most problematic rivals do not pass the registration stage, or are removed by court decision.

However, at lower levels like mayoral elections in small cities and regions, or elections of city, village or regional deputies, the battle is just as fierce as it was in the 1990s. United Russia has neither the wish nor the power to win every election. So we should not be surprised if a city mayor in Siberia, or even in the Moscow Oblast, is a Communist, and if United Russia ends up in the minority at city elections.

At lower levels, the battle is just as fierce as it was in the 1990s. We should not be surprised if a city mayor in Siberia, or even in the Moscow Oblast, is a Communist, and if United Russia ends up in the minority at city elections.

These elections are significant: the head of a Moscow Oblast village sometimes takes decisions that involve several million dollars, so official or unofficial local elites hire skilled teams of spin doctors. They create a network of campaigners who must visit all the apartments in the electoral district three times, handing out promotional literature, newspapers or calendars to residents. The campaigners are always paid for their work.

Candidates must possess a standard set of qualities. They should have been born in the area. They should be married, and have children – a homosexual candidate has no prospects whatsoever in any Russian region. The candidates should have served in the army, play sport, not smoke and not drink much. The last requirement is explained by the fact that the majority of voters are elderly women.

Candidates should go to meetings and meet workers at factories and institutes. In one city in Russia, incidentally, a candidate, who was the head doctor at a clinic, visited the apartments of the most famous people in the district with an accordion, and sang folksongs. One of the days on which he made his rounds happened to be a holiday, and he was poured a glass of vodka at every apartment he went to, but he still found the strength to visit all the addresses.

The ideal candidate  must possess a standard set of qualities. They should have been born in the area. They should be married, and have children – a homosexual candidate has no prospects whatsoever. They should have served in the army, play sport, not smoke and not drink much. Most voters, you see, are elderly women. 

The head of the election campaign usually persuades a sponsor to hire dummy candidates. Sometimes these are simply people with the same name as the main rival, who are used to split the vote. Sometimes these fake candidates publish their own newspapers, in which they mercilessly criticize their opponents and file lawsuits against them.

Legal support has become one of the main components of a successful campaign in today’s Russia. Lawyers do not let their candidates make mistakes which could lead to courts removing them from the campaign, and they keep close track of their rivals’ mistakes. In 2008, a mayoral candidate in Vologda was stood down for using music from the film “Pirates of the Caribbean” in his campaign advertising, without having signed an agreement with the copyright holder.

In another city, a candidate was almost removed for being careless enough to say publicly to a young voter: “if you’re a first time voter and turn out to vote, then I’ll give you a present”. The lawyer advised him to make ordinary greeting cards which said “A present to first time voters.” It was proved in court that the candidate had promised to give the young man one of these greeting cards, and that this did not constitute vote-buying, but was a campaigning method.

It is interesting that in 2010 at local elections in several cities, candidates from United Russia asked election campaign offices to place as little emphasis as possible on the fact that they represented the party, and not to use the party flags and colours. “We’re sick of United Russia,” they quote residents as saying. But no one doubts that at the 2011 elections this party will come first once again.

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