Joshua Tucker: As part of our continuing series of Monkey Cage Election Reports, the following is a post-election report on Russia’s September, 2014 local elections from NYU-Abu Dhabi political scientist Leonid Peisakhin.
On Sept. 14, Russia held a spate of local elections. Thirty of 85 Russian regions held gubernatorial elections, residents of Crimea elected a new regional legislature, and Muscovites voted in municipal elections. These elections are interesting because they provide a bellwether for current protest sentiment levels and perhaps even an early preview of parliamentary elections that are due to take place in 2016. Furthermore, this is also the first time that Crimea has voted as part of Russia since being annexed in March. Gubernatorial elections were reinstated in 2012 as a major concession to a mass protest movement that for a time sent tremors through Russia’s political establishment in 2011-2012 and seemed to threaten the very stability of Vladimir Putin’s regime.
The current round of elections confirms once again that the level of protest sentiment remains low across Russia and that the federal government is able to keep a firm lid on inter-elite conflict in the provinces, which back in the 1990s threatened the country’s territorial integrity. First, local elections failed to generate much public interest or discussion even in the country’s capital where many residents pay close attention to politics. Turnout was low—rarely exceeding 40 percent—and candidates nominated by the ruling United Russia party won in 28 of the 30 provinces that held gubernatorial elections (an independent won in Kirov oblast and a Communist in Orlov). Notably, incumbents won in all 30 provinces, and all of them won in the first round with levels of voter support ranging from 50.6 percent in Altai to Soviet-style 91.3 percent in Samara oblast. In other words, government candidates ran almost unopposed; all of them had been endorsed by president Putin personally shortly in the run up to the election.
The last time that gubernatorial elections took place in these same provinces in 2000-2004, most races had been hotly contested, and second-round run-off elections were held in 17 of the 30 regions. This time around, not only did regional elites coalesce around Moscow-endorsed candidates, but the federal government has also been careful to keep strong challengers (notably, Aleksandr Rutskoi in Kursk province and Oksana Dmitrieva in St. Petersburg) off the candidate list through the municipal filter mechanism. The 2012 law on gubernatorial elections states that candidates for governor must be endorsed by 5-10 percent of regional legislative assembly deputies; candidates who are not favored by the Kremlin find it difficult to secure even such minimal support in regional legislatures. All in all, United Russia’s overwhelming success in gubernatorial races indicates that the ruling party has found a way to maintain its dominance even while nominally embracing the ideal of deeper democratization through return to direct gubernatorial elections. This does not bode well for the opposition’s chances in the 2016 parliamentary election.
Notably, Moscow—the epicenter of anti-regime protest sentiment—conformed to the general trend in these elections. First, this year’s municipal elections in the capital broke the record for lowest turnout ever in post-Soviet Russia; only 21 percent of eligible voters went to the polls. Second, despite United Russia’s genuine efforts to channel the protest sentiment by intentionally not fielding any candidates in six of Moscow’s 45 municipal districts (all other major parties ran candidates in every district), the anti-Putin opposition failed to secure even a single seat in the municipal race. United Russia and independent candidates associated with the ruling party won in 38 of 45 districts, Communists prevailed in five districts, whereas Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s national-populist LDPR and Dmitry Rogozin’s Rodina won a district each. These results suggests that some of the gains made by anti-systemic opposition in the 2013 Moscow mayoral elections have now been reversed or, at the very least, put on hold.
Provincial legislature elections in Crimea yielded few surprises. United Russia won 70.4 percent of the vote, and LDPR received 8.9 percent. None of the other parties—not even Communists, who have held seats in every Crimean Supreme Council since 1991—cleared the 5 percent threshold. In other words, Crimea replicated the pattern of United Russia dominance and, if anything, has magnified it. The LDPR’s success in Crimea is a testament to the presence of a large base of nationalist sympathizers on the peninsula. Claims have been made—notably by Refat Chubarov, the leader of the Crimean Tatar Council (Mejlis), who has recently been banned from returning to Crimea by Russian authorities—that local election results are a testament to rising dissatisfaction with Russian rule because of low turnout. In fact, 53.6 percent of eligible Crimean voters went to the polls on Sept. 14. While this figure might seem low by comparison to the 83 percent who purportedly voted in the March referendum on secession from Ukraine, Crimea’s turnout rate is more than respectable when compared to the all-Russia average or standard participation rates in local elections in developed democracies. It bears noting, though, that Crimean Tatars, a Muslim minority that constitutes about 14 percent of Crimea’s population, is increasingly marginalized; few Crimean Tatars in rural areas participated in this election.
All in all, United Russia has been able to ride the rising wave of patriotism to assure its continued dominance in Russia’s regions and now in Crimea, notwithstanding worrying economic indicators and growing weariness with the Ukrainian conflict. Protest potential remains low, even in ordinarily politically active Moscow. This sets the scene for another substantial United Russia victory in the 2016 parliamentary election, despite the fact that the political playing field will be substantially more diverse in 2016 than ever before under Putin. Thus far, 14 of 77 registered political parties have secured the right to field parliamentary candidates. However, a major economic downturn coupled with a substantial and sustained drop in oil prices might yet disrupt United Russia’s winning streak.