Elections out of sight

Stanislav Andreychuk on regional and local elections in Russia

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Photo: Scanpix

The Russian regional and local elections of 2022 are taking place under extraordinary circumstances: a military conflict, large-scale economic sanctions and an attempt at de facto military censorship. All of this is on top of electoral experts’ low expectations for the election campaigns, which is dictated by the very selection of regions (we wrote about this in detail previously). Electoral competition is at its lowest in a decade — that is, since the party reform and the increase in the number of parties; few party-list representatives have been nominated, and there are few candidates in constituencies with the first-past-the-post electoral system. Even the decrease in the rate of candidate disqualification by the electoral commissions and courts is not helping (although a second wave of candidate withdrawals is now underway, and this figure will increase).

The parties are simply short of candidates willing to run for election. For example, the new parliamentary New People party did not even put forward its lists for the city councils of Cherkessk and Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky — that is, in two of the seven regional capitals where elections among party-list candidates will take place this year. In the case of the election for the Sakhalin regional parliament (legislative assembly), the party list consists of people associated with the mayor of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.

However, no matter how much the authorities try to limit electoral competition, the country is proving to be too big and society too complex, with many covert and overt internal conflicts and discontent that has been building for years, with struggles erupting in various and unexpected parts of the country. As a result, an election of which little was expected is suddenly livening up.

A surprise amidst apathy

Regional elections for governors and regional parliaments were supposed to be the most boring. Gubernatorial elections were seen as such because of the so-called municipal filter (the requirement for candidates to collect signatures from municipal deputies in support of their nomination), which is almost insurmountable without the backing of the authorities. The regional elections for legislative assemblies are predictable because of the selection of regions, which mostly include ‘electoral sultanates’ – that is, regions notorious for mass electoral fraud.

Gubernatorial elections are taking place in 14 regions, four republics (Buryatia, Karelia, Mari El and Udmurtia) and 10 oblasts (Vladimir, Kaliningrad, Kirov, Novgorod, Ryazan, Saratov, Sverdlovsk, Tambov, Tomsk and Yaroslavl). There are four or five candidates in the race almost everywhere (in 12 regions). This has been the situation year after year, which is one of the signs of managed competition in gubernatorial elections. Four or five candidates were registered in the overwhelming majority of gubernatorial campaigns in both 2021 and 2020 as well as in all previous ones dating back to at least 2014. This appears to be the optimal number of contestants for the officially endorsed candidates. It is no coincidence that in late August two registered candidates in Karelia, which had initially been the leader in terms of formal competition (seven candidates had been registered there before voluntary withdrawals), dropped out of the race on the same day. It is likely that internal polls in Karelia showed that the candidates from the Party of Growth and the Party of Pensioners were stealing support from the United Russia candidate.

Even such competition is inherently contractual in nature. For example, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) did not nominate a candidate for the head of Mari El at all, even though in 2021 the CPRF won the vote for the State Duma based on party lists there (36.3%, the best result in Russia). In Buryatia, the party did not nominate Vyacheslav Markhayev, a State Duma deputy popular in the region and beyond. The Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) did not nominate anyone in the Tomsk Oblast, where its representative, Alexey Didenko, was elected to the State Duma in 2021 in a single-member constituency. A Just Russia has not put forward candidates in the Yaroslavl Oblast (or in Buryatia or the Kirov Oblast), although the party’s candidates won the September 2021 Russian State Duma elections in those single-member constituencies. As a result, a State Duma deputy, Nikolay Burlyaev, representing A Just Russia, was included on the list of candidates for the Federation Council by acting Governor Mikhail Yevrayev.

Against this backdrop, Udmurtia comes as a big surprise. It is a small republic in the Volga Region where Aleksandr Brechalov, former Secretary of the Russian Civic Chamber and co-chairman of the Central Headquarters of the All-Russian People’s Front (ONF) (and the ONF was once seen as an alternative to United Russia), is trying to hold on to the governorship. Brechalov was elected head of the region five years ago but is experiencing difficulties this year. His two main rivals — Duma deputy Vadim Belousov (A Just Russia) and Izhevsk City Duma deputy Alexander Syrov (CPRF) — are currently under criminal investigation. While the case against Belousov was initiated long ago (in 2017) and he is now wanted, the case against Syrov was initiated just before the election campaign. Syrov responded by filing a lawsuit to deregister Brechalov as a candidate. Had Brechalov not been endorsed by the government, his candidacy would have been disqualified by now — the mistakes in the documents submitted were obvious. Next, the election commission ruled that a colourful booklet containing a report on the incumbent governor’s activities was illegal campaigning and banned its distribution. The governor became nervous and finally got a residence permit in Udmurtia (until then he had officially remained a resident of Moscow for all five years), which caused another wave of negative publicity for him.

Peculiar competition in elections to regional parliaments

In Udmurtia, some surprises can be expected in the election to the regional parliament (legislative assembly), as lists of eight parties have been registered (only Sakhalin has the maximum of nine registered party lists). A rather high level of competition (5.9 candidates per seat) can also be observed in the first-past-the-post constituencies (again, Sakhalin has the maximum number of candidates per seat, i.e. 7.6). The top three candidates on the lists of United Russia and the CPRF are the main competitors in the gubernatorial election, while the LDPR list has excluded its number one, Dmitry Begishev (the reason being that the Green Alternative party claimed Begishev as a member).

In Sakhalin, nine party lists are competing for just 10 seats under the proportional representation system. The main competition here will be in the first-past-the-post constituencies. Many candidates associated with Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk mayor Sergey Nadsadin represent two parties (United Russia and New People). The CPRF in the region is in a phase of internal squabbles and restructuring. During the party conference the issue of nominating ineffective candidates was raised. The party leadership’s decision to support the nomination of Igor Yanchuk, an incumbent Sakhalin deputy and member of the United Russia faction, in one of the constituencies also came as a surprise. It is the first such case in the history of the Sakhalin branch of the CPRF. In general, the CPRF on Sakhalin is under reconstruction: in 2017−2022, there was an exodus of old assets from the party, who moved on and joined other parties and projects. First of all, the Russian Party of Freedom and Justice (RPFJ) (former Communist Party of Social Justice) and the Communists of Russia both are taking part in elections and nominating former CPRF members. Political competition is taking on a peculiar character.

The election results in one of the electoral sultanates, the region of North Ossetia-Alania, may also bring surprising results for external observers who are not immersed in the situation. The region has a newly appointed governor who has never been associated with the Caucasus and did not perform exceedingly well in his previous political positions. Meet Sergey Menyailo, former Deputy Commander of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in 2009−2011 and reserve Vice-Admiral, Governor of Sevastopol in 2014−2016, presidential envoy to the Siberian Federal District in 2016−2021. Despite the results of the primaries, United Russia’s lists included the senator from North Ossetia, deputy speaker Alexander Totoonov, and the current Chairman of the Parliament of the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania, Alexey Machnev, who lost the intra-party vote. However, the relationship between the new governor and Arsen Fadzaev, the Olympic freestyle wrestling champion and influential regional politician, is what matters. Fadzaev was Vladimir Putin’s confidant in the 2000 Russian presidential election, and was elected to the State Duma in 2003 as a member of the Union of Right Forces (SPS). Then Fadzaev joined United Russia. He moved on to represent Patriots of Russia, and the party won an impressive 26.6% of the votes in regional elections in 2012. Fadzaev joined forces with the republic’s former governors: Patriots of Russia chaired the committees in the regional parliament, while one of Fadzaev’s relatives was appointed deputy prime minister of the region. In 2017, the party won 15.7%, and Fadzaev was elected to the Federation Council. In the spring of 2021, he became the head of the combined regional branch of A Just Russia and Patriots of Russia, but relations with the central authorities soured after Menyailo’s appointment. As a result, A Just Russia rallied representatives of elite groups who were dissatisfied with the new arrangements within the ruling party (United Russia) and who were left on the back burner when its list was drawn up.

North Ossetia also has the highest number of disqualified party-list candidates (in 2022 it is the only region that has no first-past-the-post constituencies): three parties out of eight were withdrawn from the elections. While the withdrawal of the candidates of the Communists of Russia is not surprising, the non-admission of the New People party, and of the Right Cause party in particular, looks completely absurd. The other three regions where regional elections take place include the Krasnodar Krai, Penza and Saratov Oblasts. They are also electoral sultanates, and elections there have so far been predictably uneventful.

Local politics

The closer elections are to the ground, the freer they tend to be. The central authorities simply lack the resources to control them. For this reason, it is local elections that often best reflect the real processes in Russian society. Fierce fights and unexpected surprises can be observed far more often at the bottom than at the regional (let alone federal) level. The main problem of local elections is the low turnout, which allows the authorities to win solely by mobilising voters who depend on them (contrary to a widespread belief, these are not only state employees).

The most significant of the local elections are city council elections in regional capitals. There are 12 such cities this year, seven of which retain the proportional representation component, which obliged them to elect a portion of their deputies on the basis of party lists, namely in the cities of Cherkessk, Kyzyl, Barnaul, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, Kirov, Kursk and Pskov. This year, there have been very few refusals to register in these seven cities: out of 51 nominated lists, 50 have been registered. It is true that there is still a high-profile scandal related to an attempt to remove the list of the New People party in the Pskov election. The story there was so scandalous and absurd that it reached the federal level, and the Central Election Commission of Russia decided to send a representative there to resolve the issue. In general, the New People party has the biggest problems with registration of all the parliamentary big five. They were disqualified in North Ossetia, and there have been attempts to disqualify them in Pskov, which is not typical for a parliamentary party.

Formally, the biggest competition will be in the Barnaul City Duma elections: nine party lists have been registered there, but four of them are outright CPRF spoilers. In a city where the position of the CPRF has traditionally been strong, the Party of Pensioners, the Communists of Russia and Rodina, as well as the Russian Ecological Party ‘The Greens’ encountered no problems while registering. At the same time, these parties’ lists for the elections to the Barnaul City Duma were largely filled with students from Altai State Technical University, whose vice-rector for educational affairs is Ivan Ognev, the incumbent deputy and United Russia candidate, head of the party faction in the City Duma. Moreover, the list of the Communists of Russia included former heads of the local branches of the Young Guard of United Russia in Barnaul and the Khabarsky District of Altai Krai.

The Rodina Party’s list for the elections to the Cherkessk City Duma is also an eye-opener. The top three candidates on the list are employees of the State National Library, and the rest of the list is largely filled by employees of the Department of Housing and Utilities of Cherkessk City Hall.

The election in Kirov could be interesting, as A Just Russia is very active there. At the same time, 80% of A Just Russia candidates have never been elected, and 70% have never been nominated before. The CPRF has also nominated a list of first-timers. The focus is on young people: the second and third candidates on the list were born in 1997 and 1995, respectively.

But the main struggle at the local level will also take place in the first-past-the-post constituencies. At the nomination and registration stage, there has been a fairly large dropout rate (34%) among self-nominees (a total of 52% were disqualified) and candidates nominated by parties that do not enjoy parliamentary privileges (the right to be nominated without collecting signatures) — that is, by parties that have to collect signatures from voters. By comparison, the dropout rate among the nominees of the parties with privileges was only 3%.

In terms of self-nominated candidates, the exception is Gorno-Altaysk, where there are on average almost three per seat, while the parliamentary opposition parties have nominated few candidates: New People has not nominated candidates at all, the CPRF has nominated 13 candidates out of 21 mandates, and A Just Russia — For Truth — only seven (six of whom have been registered). In other words, some of the opposition has decided to run for election as self-nominees. If we exclude 57 self-nominated candidates from Gorno-Altaysk, the remaining 10 cities will have only 32 self-nominated candidates, which is about 13% of the number of seats.

It is telling which of the self-nominees were able to overcome the signature threshold. In Vladivostok, for example, only candidates from the so-called Shestakov team (Konstantin Shestakov is the head of the city of Vladivostok) were able to register, while in Barnaul only three of the nine self-nominated candidates were able to register. Two of them turned out to be spoilers — that is, the namesakes of other candidates. The third registered self-nominee was former United Russia city councillor Yevgeny Astakhovsky.

As for party nominees without a privilege, there were none in Kyzyl, Barnaul or Tver, and after registration there were none in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, Omsk or Yaroslavl (nor were there any self-nominees in Kyzyl).

In terms of parties without a privilege, the exception is Vladivostok, where most of the candidates from the Communists of Russia and the Cossack Party of the Russian Federation, ‘spoilers’ for the CPRF, are registered. If we exclude 57 candidates from Vladivostok, the remaining 10 (four, to be exact) cities will have only 14 candidates from such parties.

This year’s elections have just begun to liven up, as active campaigning began in mid-August. There is not much time left until polling day, but there could still be more surprises, which in itself is a bit of a surprise given the environment in which this year’s elections are taking place.

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