ОД "Русская версия": Opinion

The three factors that will determine Russia’s political future

As the dust settles from last week’s elections, it’s now clear that a ‘triangle’ of elements will decide the opposition’s success in future votes

Alexander Zamyatin
30 September 2021, 12.01am
Moscow residents protest parliamentary elections results at a Communist-organised rally
(c) Nikolay Vinokurov / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Despite last week’s election results, the Russian opposition does not feel defeated – and the authorities are in no hurry to celebrate their triumph, at least in Moscow.

Indeed, all 15 seats in the Russian capital were won by pro-government candidates promoted on a party list by Moscow mayor Sergey Sobyanin.

But three factors – the now scandalous electronic voting system used in Moscow; the Smart Voting tactical voting scheme designed to support single opposition candidates against United Russia candidates; and Russia’s ​​Communist Party – now determine the opposition’s prospects in future elections, and perhaps the country’s political future itself.

Implausible results

The results of the Duma elections in Moscow are impossible to understand without mentioning the main elephant in the room – electronic voting. The victory of United Russia candidates and other candidates supported by Sobyanin in Moscow was made possible precisely because of the new electronic voting system – both in single-mandate districts and through party lists.

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In eight constituencies, candidates from the opposition won the in-person vote at ordinary polling stations. Only after the count of paper ballots was completed on the morning of 20 September did the results of electronic voting appear. These promptly overturned the in-person results – which the opposition led – in favour of ‘administration’ candidates.

Thus, in south-west Moscow, opposition candidate Mikhail Lobanov managed to bypass Evgeny Popov, a state television host, by almost 11,000 votes (the best opposition result in Moscow). Yet in the final results from electronic voting, Popov received a 20,000 vote majority.

Mikhail Lobanov
Image: Mikhail Lobanov / Social media

The credibility of the counting process in the online vote is almost impossible to verify, and the team behind another independent candidate in Moscow, Anastasia Bryukhanova, quickly found evidence that suggested the electronic vote had been manipulated.

This state of affairs poses an obvious question for all politically active citizens in Moscow: how can we participate in future elections if the authorities can control their results using electronic voting? Mass protests against the electronic vote did not emerge, and there is no reason to believe that the online vote will be revoked in the future. Indeed, there is no reason to believe that this kind of falsification operation will not be repeated in the future – and perhaps the Russian authorities will try to extend this experience outside the capital.

At first glance, electronic voting appears to deliver an absolutely predictable result for the Russian administration – but in reality, the online voting system has its limits and vulnerabilities that are yet to be determined

For those who are not ready to abandon electoral politics as the only mode of legal opposition in Russia, the task is now twofold: 1) study the electronic voting fraud and how to limit falsifications during online voting, and 2), figure out how far protest-minded citizens need to mobilised in order to defeat pro-government candidates ‘supported’ by online voting. At first glance, electronic voting appears to deliver an absolutely predictable result for the Russian administration – but in reality, the online voting system has its limits and vulnerabilities that are yet to be determined.

Equally important is the issue of trust in the election results in Russian society. Everyone still remembers how Alexander Lukashenko awarded himself 80% in the Belarusian presidential elections last year, despite low public support in reality. This falsification, along with police violence, led to unprecedented mass protests across the country. The authorities in Russia are afraid of this: they understand that implausible election results can be more dangerous than the loss of several dozen seats at the regional or local levels. Therefore, electronic voting does not fuly solve the problem of United Russia’s falling ratings and its declining electoral success.

Navalny’s Smart Voting

For obvious reasons, Moscow has become the most promising testing ground for the political potential of Alexey Navalny’s ‘smart voting’ tactics.

The rating of United Russia here is traditionally below the national average. On the eve of the September 2021 elections it reached a historic low of 26% (according to official data from the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center), and before the start of the campaign, its rating in Moscow dropped below 20%. At the same time, Moscow is home to the greatest concentration of Navalny supporters and generally protest-minded voters looking for an opportunity to punish the authorities in the elections. According to the organisers of Smart Voting, the candidates they supported could have won in all or almost all of Moscow’s single-mandate districts.

Indeed, intrigue remained until the last moment – how many supporters would the Navalny team be able to mobilise for the vote? After all, the opposition’s most prominent leader is currently in prison, isolated from public politics. His team, meanwhile, is in forced emigration, contending with multiple blockings of its websites in Russia.

Still, for many opposition candidates, getting on the Smart Voting list was a clear motivation. Hence we saw multiple opposition candidates running in several Moscow polling districts, and voters eagerly waited for the final recommendations of the Smart Voting – which would prevent the spread of protest votes among several candidates.

"Elections without choice" reads this protest placard in Moscow, 25 September 2021
(c) Nikolay Vinokurov / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

In Moscow’s Leningrad and Kuntsevo districts, where the competition between the two opposition candidates was greatest, Smart Voting had a strong effect. For example, in Kuntsevo, liberal party Yabloko’s candidate, Kirill Goncharov, was not chosen in the Smart Voting recommendations, and ended up fifth in the final results, receiving 6.5 times fewer votes than Mikhail Lobanov. In other words, Smart Voting provided a huge flow of supporters for a single opposition candidate at the ballot box.

Thus, despite the official election results – guaranteed by the electronic vote – and the authorities’ attempts to block information about Smart Voting, the Navalny team’s strategy remains the main instrument of consolidation, and one that gets significant results in obviously unequal competition with the ruling party.

Smart Voting has almost no noticeable ideological opponents remaining within the opposition itself. Even candidates from the Yabloko party (whose leaders openly criticise Navalny and his approach) admitted that they needed Smart Vote to win, though the party itself received only 1.34% of the vote across the country. Two years ago, prior to the elections to the Moscow City Duma, there were vigorous debates about how expedient and moral it was to vote for any candidate in order to defeat the administration’s candidates. Now this skepticism has practically disappeared. For many voters, the only question was: who exactly will the Navalny team support in my constituency?

Smart Voting is not just a call to action for the Communist Party – e.g. to possibly make a decisive break with the Navalny team – but a catalyst for the party’s own internal contradictions

Yet, perhaps the most interesting effect that Smart Voting had was on the Communist Party of the Russian Federation. It would seem that the Communists should have been the main beneficiary of this strategy, as it had nominated many strong opposition candidates in the country.

But the party now finds itself in an ambiguous position: on the one hand, support for Navalny’s team brings with it promises of new parliamentary seats, and on the other hand, this support carries enormous risks of reprisals from the Kremlin. This point is especially clear to the party’s top leadership, which openly prefers Vladimir Putin to Navalny. Smart Voting is not just a call to action for the Communist Party – e.g. to possibly make a decisive break with the Navalny team – but a catalyst for the party’s own internal contradictions.

Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov
Image: Russian State Duma

The Communist factor

Indeed, the Communist Party probably experienced the greatest dissatisfaction with the electronic voting fraud among Russia’s political parties.

Not only did Communist candidates appear to have led at polling stations in Moscow, but they also completely bypassed United Russia on the general voting list before the release of electronic voting reports. A week after the elections, supporters of the Communist Party held three protests. These protests were relatively small (200 to 1,000 people) and could have remained another sluggish attempt by the Communist party to preserve its opposition image, if not for the tough reaction of the authorities. Participants of the first two meetings were detained at home and in the metro the very next day. Ahead of a rally on Moscow’s Pushkin Square on Saturday, the police even blocked the entrances to the building of the Moscow City Duma in order to preemptively arrest some Communist deputies. That same day, party leader Gennady Zyuganov met president Putin and discussed the election results, though limited himself to cautious concerns about the electronic vote and actually declared his agreement with the election results.

Thus, we can see two opposite tendencies inside the Communist Party. One comes from the party’s conservative leadership, which is interested in preserving the status quo and setting the boundaries of permissible protest actions. Another has emerged from some parliamentarians and candidates, who are more dependent on their voters than on the party nomenklatura, and are ready for decisive political action and alliances with the Navalny team. The Smart Voting strategy has exacerbated the contradiction between them. It forces Communist candidates to choose between the real prospect of getting a seat and the risk of reprisal for accepting support from Navalny.

Despite the Communists’ modest results (while their approval rating suggests they should have at least 100 seats, they received 57 at the election), the party remains an important subject of Russian electoral politics. The electronic voting is the latest personification of ‘administrative resources’ (ensuring election results via manipulating procedures and compelling public sector workers to vote for the ruling party) and can become a strong argument in dividing the Communist Party and ‘Smart Voting’. The Kremlin could try to convince the Communists that cooperation with Navalny will no longer bring electoral growth – the Kremlin will, after all, retain control over the electronic vote. The Navalny team themselves will continue to work for a split between the Communist Party and the Kremlin and will try to encourage the former’s supporters into a campaign against electronic voting, instead of using it to get more votes at the next elections.

What happens in this ‘triangle’ – Smart Voting, the Communist Party and the electronic vote – in the coming years will determine the prospects for open, legal politics in Russia.

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