After reading Timothy Frye’s and Scott Gehlbach’s interpretations of the recent mayoral election in Moscow on The Monkey Cage, I thought I would offer my own, different explanation for this event. As you highlight in your earlier posts, a fundamental question that political scientists address is: When and why do incumbents manipulate elections? In the case of the Moscow mayoral election, the puzzle has been the reverse: Why would a government that has a history of manipulating elections decide to hold a free one?
In a research paper titled “Third Parties and the Success of Democracy” (co-authored by Svitlana Chernykh), we provide a general answer to these questions that also clarifies why the Kremlin decided to hold one of the freest elections in the recent memory. Our logic goes as follows: An authoritarian incumbent will find a clean election most valuable when he needs to dispel the impression that the opposition might be more popular than he is. This is precisely the scenario before the Moscow mayoral election last month. Moscow is the most likely place in Russia where an opposition candidate might enjoy widespread popular support. If the incumbent, Sergey Sobyanin, held a nontransparent election and claimed a quick victory, the opposition might have believed that the election was stolen by the regime and incite those opposed to President Vladimir Putin to fight for a victory in the streets. After all, finding out ahead of the election who was the most popular candidate in Moscow was not easy, due to the widespread belief that opinion polls were manipulated by the regime. Just as in Iran in 2009, this could prove costly for Putin and Sobyanin — even if they did eventually succeed in suppressing such protests.
Holding a (reasonably) free and fair mayoral election was therefore the best way for Putin to convince Muscovites that his candidate was indeed the most popular one. While the leading opposition candidate, Alexei Navalny, came out of the mayoral race looking better than expected, the election managed to dispel any hopes that the opposition might be more popular in Moscow than the regime is. After all, Sobyanin beat Navalny by more than 20 percentage points. Holding a free mayoral election was therefore a calculated risk that paid off (even if at the price of barely avoiding a runoff.) The broader implication is that the benefit of popular legitimacy does not come for free — or at least not without running the risk of losing an election.