It’s hard to lose an election when you control ballot access, the government bureaucracy, the courts, the media, and the votes of vast swathes of the population dependent on state support – and when you are personally endorsed by the supposedly admired national leader. Yet Vladimir Putin’s ruling United Russia party still managed to come out on the wrong end of last week’s gubernatorial election in Primorye region, Russia’s far eastern territory. With 98 percent of the ballots counted, the Kremlin-appointed incumbent was trailing the Communist Party candidate by 47 percent of the vote to 50 percent. The only trick left to the authorities was old-fashioned ballot-stuffing: the incumbent, Acting Gov. Andrei Tarasenko, was declared the winner after several dozen precincts gave him 100 percent of the vote on a 100-percent turnout in the final two hours of counting.
The real winner, a 37-year-old construction executive and regional legislator by the name of Andrei Ishchenko, has no major political achievements, no charisma and no proposals worthy of note. His personality, his politics and his party affiliation did not matter. He had only one advantage in the eyes of voters: He was running against the candidate Putin endorsed.
“Russians are slowly coming to the idea of ‘Anyone but United Russia,’” noted Boris Vishnevsky, an opposition lawmaker in the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly. “This is very similar to 1990, when it was ‘Anyone but the Communists.’ The mole of history digs slowly, but irrevocably.”
Vishnevsky knows what he is talking about: He was first elected as a municipal legislator in what was then Leningrad in the pro-democracy wave of 1990, when opposition to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was almost enough to guarantee victory. Nationwide, that election gave rise to a generation of democratic politicians, including Boris Nemtsov, Sergei Yushenkov and Pyotr Filippov; the leader of the pro-democracy movement, Boris Yeltsin, became speaker of Russia’s parliament. Amazingly, that election was still officially (though no longer in practice) held within the constraints of a one-party system.
The one issue that turned so many residents of Russia’s Far East into protest voters was the pension reform recently announced by the Russian government. Citing a shortage of money — and, in effect, admitting that Russia’s windfall of oil revenues has been wasted (or misappropriated) — the government proposed to raise the retirement age from 55 to 60 for women, and from 60 to 65 for men (in a country where the average male life expectancy is 67 years.) Street protests broke out all over the country. As is customary, peaceful demonstrators were met with police batons and jail sentences.
In a statement from his jail cell, where he was sent ahead of the rallies, anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny called on the residents of the Far East to go to the streets to defend their votes and on people from other regions to support them. “Let us forget about ideological differences, it doesn’t matter which party Ishchenko represents,” he wrote. “The blatant and brazen election fraud in Primorye is an insult … to the whole country.” Even before Navalny’s call, people began to gather on Vladivostok’s main square, in front of the governor’s office, to protest the fraud.
In the end, the protests did not have time to get underway. The Kremlin calculated that the fraud was too blatant even by its own standards,and dispatched a delegation from the Central Election Commission to Vladivostok. Playing the “good cop,” the commission’s chair, Ella Pamfilova, directed local officials to annul the election results. It is the first time this has happened in Russia since 2002. A rerun will be held in December.
Whatever its outcome, nothing will change in practical terms. The Communist Party has long accepted its role as a loyal opposition in the Kremlin’s managed political system. Its members elected to positions of authority, such as Irkutsk Gov. Sergei Levchenko or Novosibirsk Mayor Anatoly Lokot, have faithfully toed the Kremlin line where it mattered. The significance of what happened in Russia’s Far East on Sept. 16 lies elsewhere: It is a sign that Russians are beginning to look for any alternative to a regime increasingly seen as corrupt and out of touch. For a long time, the Kremlin has managed to maintain its political dominance and its facade of popularity by preventing the strongest opponents from getting on the ballot. Now, it seems, this may no longer be enough.