Elections in wartime: why the September votes matter

Andras Toth-Czifra investigates how the Kremlin is gearing up to outflank and intimidate opposition parties at September’s elections

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Photo: Scanpix

On September 11, Russia will hold regional and municipal elections. 14 of its regions will see direct gubernatorial elections, while six vote for a whole new legislature. Elections are also set for local councils across 11 cities, as well as Moscow’s districts, and several smaller settlements. But hold on: Why are these votes important in a country that has turned into a hard autocracy?

The key thing to note is how competitive-looking regional and local elections are still important for the Kremlin, Kremlin-appointed officials and the local elites who contest these votes. However hopeless the situation looks for opposition activists and voters, the elections are important for them too; it allows them to practice organizing and mobilizing at a local level, even with ever less room to manoeuvre.

Six months into the Kremlin’s full-scale war in Ukraine, the economy is sliding into a protracted recession; industrial production is severely disrupted, and the Kremlin reportedly fears that public mood is about to turn sour as people return from their summer dachas. What seems to have changed, though, is the level of uncertainty in terms ofelectoral anger. While the Kremlin can hardly expect a hefty electoral boost akin to 2014, it seems the authorities now deem any ballot box risks as manageable. This is true even as some of the regions in question are considered contentious. Buryatia has seen a local anti-war movement emerge, with a disproportionately high number of troops from the region killed in Ukraine. The Sverdlovsk region did not only experience industrial decline over the past months, but its capital, Yekaterinburg, has seen some of the strongest opposition actions in recent years. The Yaroslavl Region and the Republic of Mari El saw a poor showing of United Russia in last year’s parliamentary election. All four are holding a gubernatorial election where protest voting could have a higher impact, as shown by four surprise upsets in 2018.

Some of the regions holding legislative or gubernatorial votes have been hit by sanctions already: Kaliningrad, for example, where the local automotive industry has been disrupted by sanctions and the war; or Tver, where machine building is facing setbacks due to a lack of parts. But surveys suggest most Russians still have not realized things will not improve in the foreseeable future; similarly, many within the ruling elite still seem to be in denial about long-term costs. In short, if the Kremlin is looking for an opportunity to show all is business-as-usual domestically, the September votes present a perfect moment.

The rationale

The main purpose of the votes is, as always, ensuring that the grip of United Russia remains strong on regional and municipal assemblies. In 2022, this is especially important for two reasons.

First, the timeline of the war in Ukraine is shifting. Even the most optimistic budgetary forecast points to an investment slump from already low levels: for instance, the Economic Ministry expects a decline of 10.8 percent in 2022 and 4.9 in 2023. Coupled with industrial breakdown and widespread uncertainty about demand, this means the federal government will have a far bigger role in deploying economic and fiscal resources. Apart from federal transfers, the two most important sources of income for regional budgets are corporate and personal income taxes, both of which will drop significantly. To be able to finance the main functions of regional budgets — funding social aid, health care, education, local investments and housing — regions without a strong industrial base or reserves, that is, almost every region, will have to rely more on federal transfers. A similar shift took place during the COVID crisis. At the same time, governors will likely have to put more pressure on local business to take over responsibilities that regional budgets and administrations are unable to fulfill. Administering elections is an opportunity for governors to show that they are capable of keeping order and working with the local commissars of the Presidential Administration and the security services.

Second, the coming months will likely see the adoption of a bill on municipal self-government, completing the government’s public administration reform and increasing the power of regional governments over districts and municipalities in their regions. One likely purpose of this bill is to stop the «pluralization» of local and regional politics observed in the past 4−5 years by making it more difficult for political actors with strong local or grassroots support emerge. Regional and local issues, from potholed roads to polluting investment projects are the kind of problems that can still be efficiently used in today’s Russia to do politics. The institutional legitimacy of governors matter: as Alexander Kynev showed, new governors could make a significant difference to the quality of elections in a region between two votes. Regional heads who will, once the reform is adopted, have a bigger leverage over local actors — including potential rivals -, will likely have a similar impact on the development of local pluralism. An eventful electoral campaign in Udmurtia, where the Communist Party candidate, Alexander Syrov, a local businessman, attempted to remove the Kremlin’s «outsider» governor, Alexander Brechalov, from the ballot for campaign violations, was a reminder of what kind of conflicts can emerge.

Regional and local elections are testing grounds for more important votes. This year the system of «distanced electronic voting» — also known as online voting — will be further tested, in eight regions, before, as planned, it is rolled out countrywide. One purpose of both this and multi-day voting, which sixteen regions will use in September, is to make the vote less affectable by independent observers and opposition activists. As in almost every year, electoral legislation also became more restrictive: Federal Law nr. 60 of 2022 restricted the rights of consultative electoral commission members, while regional electoral committees, which, due to their selection methods, are usually made up of ruling party representatives, gained more control over campaign materials.

Voting systems also shifted. The March 2022 law removed the requirement that voting systems used to elect regional legislatures have a proportional element. This means regions are free to adopt voting systems where the plurality of votes is enough to win a mandate. As the 2016 and 2021 Duma elections showed, these «first-past-the-post» districts have greatly benefited United Russia and likely reduced the need to resort to falsifications. (There are other examples, lik. in 2020 when the city of Vladimir elected an all-United Russia city council after switching to a majoritarian system). This time, the authorities are treading carefully: none of the six regions where legislative votes will be held in September have taken advantage of this change. However, several regions — Udmurtia, the Krasnodar Territory, the Saratov Region and Sakhalin — changed their systems to increase the weight of «majoritarian» districts. So did several cities: Tver, Yaroslavl, Omsk and Vladivostok eliminated party lists altogether.

The sticks and the carrots

This is going together with the familiar tactic of disqualifying, prosecuting or intimidating opposition candidates. The Net Freedoms Project counted at least 85 cases of election-related persecution, of which 53 in Moscow, where at least a handful of independent candidates managed to get registered and where Alexey Navalny’s team set up «Smart Voting». Only the six parties in the State Duma were able to field candidates in all six regions where legislative elections are held; many of the rest are «spoilers» designed to split the opposition vote. We see a high number of «technical candidates»: former assistants, family members, etc. of the local governor or mayor who are there to give a semblance of competition before, in most cases, they withdraw shortly before the vote. While this is not a novel tactic, it also suggests that it is getting increasingly difficult (and risky) for the Kremlin to recruit spoiler candidates.

Add to this the repression of dissent, ramped up even further since February. This has both led to the more widespread application of existing legislation (e.g. Article 20.3 of the Administrative Criminal Code that allows the authorities to deprive people of the right to be elected if they have displayed broadly defined «extremist symbols»), and the adoption of new laws and practice. For instance, Federal Law nr. 32 criminalized spreading «fake news» about the military has been used to block independent candidates. The sharper friend-enemy distinction forced under the pretext of the war is also impacting procedures: for instance, in Vladimir, the local Electoral Commission decided to ignore reports of illegal campaigning by pro-Kremlin candidates under the pretext that «foreign resources» published them. In Vladivostok the Communist Party withdrew a candidate who was mildly critical of the social consequences of the war.

Even so, local political activity has not been extinguished in the regions and activists have been using tried out methods to influence the vote. In the Vladimir Oblast and Udmurtia, for instance, local public organizations called on voters to support any opposition candidate or cast an invalid vote to make it harder to falsify the results. In many regions local activists organized protests to demand honest elections, sometimes supported by local opposition party chapters.

When it comes to financial incentives, regional heads are still strongly reliant on the federal government, and increasingly so. Most governors facing an election have already met Putin — in person or through a video call — to gain his endorsement and ask money to finance local projects, such as building a new bridge over the Ude river, the repair of water supply infrastructure in Tambov or simply fixing roads. This an ordinary part of the election period. An approving nod from the president speeds up these projects, even though this job has been increasingly split between Putin and Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin in the past few years.

At the same time, the authorities are still allowing local leaders some wiggle room, provided they deliver the results. In the Yaroslavl Region and the Republic of Mari El Kremlin-appointed governors run as «independents», likely due to the bad showing of United Russia in last year’s election — a tactic used perhaps most famously in the 2019 Moscow Municipal Council election. Recent research showed that not every governor feels the need to put the war front and center in their communication, especially in riskier regions.

While orchestrating elections remains important for the government, local activism can be the last refuge of activists too who in recent months have been forced out of political parties or underground, and who can ally themselves with citizens who will find themselves laid off or in financial hardship.

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