The September 8 regional elections will continue the transition from stability, with a domination of Putin and the United Russia, to a new political arrangement and a greater uncertainty. The changes concern the vast majority of the electoral contests, not just the high-profile election campaigns in Moscow, Yekaterinburg, and the Yaroslavl Oblast. On the one hand, the efforts by the regional administrations to preserve the power of the ruling party shape the election dynamics. On the other hand, the voters are tired of all of the old parties; their discontent with the status quo is growing, and after December 2011, there emerged an opportunity to express this discontent by voting for the new parties.

The elections of regional legislatures had long been considered secondary in Russia, while the gubernatorial elections had been more significant. Changes to the electoral system introduced in the mid-2000s (voting on party lists and abolishing the direct elections of regional heads) shifted this balance. Until the middle of 2000s, the average turnout for the gubernatorial elections hovered around 52 to 54 percent, while the legislative elections registered the turnout of 41 to 42 percent. By the early 2010s, the average legislative turnout had exceeded 50 percent, while the restored gubernatorial elections had the turnout of only 45 percent in October 2012. The so-called municipal filter has made the outcome of gubernatorial elections predictable. As a consequence, they attract less interest on the part of ambitious politicians and entrepreneurs, as well as on the part of voters.

The “new multi-party system” already had its effect on the October 2012 regional elections. The new parties were mostly weak spoiler projects, but as weak as they were, they, along with the small parties of the 2000s, managed to receive a tenth of the total votes. At the same time, the support for the parliamentary parties (the Communists, A Just Russia, and the Liberal Democrats) declined 10 points on the aggregate in comparison with 2007–2008. In some regions, A Just Russia and Liberal Democrat candidates could not pass the electoral threshold altogether. These trends should become more pronounced at the September elections: the new parties are expected to receive more votes than they did in 2012. The parties with moderate platform and slogans derive their support from the undecided voters that until recently comprised the “Putin majority.” While the United Russia can still maintain high election results thanks to the administrative pressure, the other parliamentary parties have already entered a new harsh and competitive reality. The easy-to-predict success of the new political parties will send a signal to the political entrepreneurs contemplating the election run next year, and the trend is certain to continue until the next nationwide elections.

In the summer and fall of 2013, the authorities have tested a whole slew of measures, ranging from the unjustified removal of candidates from the ballot and their criminal prosecution to the demonstrative support of the opposition politicians. Such lack of coordination points to the absence of a unified and well-thought-out response on the part of the regime, which may also increase the confusion among the regional officials, who have to deal with these elections. The regime probably no longer has the effective means to preserve the status quo.

Alexey Titkov is an associate professor at the Higher School of Economics.

  • Alexey Titkov