Recent primaries in Russia appear to have gone well for the ruling United Russia party: its leadership has praised the turnout, spoken of true competition, and even proposed incorporating primary rules into political law.

The reality is a little different. Actually, the primaries have failed: neither United Russia nor the Kremlin has reached any of the goals they set. And the presidential administration has exposed its indecision and fear of seeing things through to the end.

United Russia had been preparing for these primaries since last fall. Every step of the process was given maximum media coverage. The party was clearly trying to fuel interest, releasing at least one “breaking news” story a week on the subject. These elections were promising to become no less important than the election campaign later this year for the Duma, the lower house of parliament.

Touting a “fair, transparent, and legitimate” vote, United Russia even invited candidates from other parties to compete, saying it wanted to nominate the strongest candidates. An impressive turnout—about 20 percent of the total number of voters—was expected, and to that end United Russia reserved a fifth of the total number of polling stations that will be used in the Duma election proper, so that primary voters would have somewhere to cast their ballots.

But opponents warned that the primaries’ unofficial goal was more devious: United Russia, they said, simply wanted to promote the party brand and local district candidates to the maximum before the official election campaign got underway.

Both the explicit and the implicit goals of the primaries were achievable. United Russia did need strong and vibrant candidates, especially in single-member districts.

The presidential administration and the ruling party learned from the mistakes made during the 2011 Duma election. Then, the party fielded unpopular candidates who won anyway, in some cases through electoral fraud, and mass protests broke out over the fraud.

Now, the authorities ensure the desired result before the vote. Ways to achieve this include refusing to register opposition candidates, using spoiler candidates to split the opposition vote, and other tactics. Another technique is road-testing the pro-Kremlin candidates before election day.

Plenty of candidates are ready to compete for each Duma seat, and most of them support President Vladimir Putin’s policies. So United Russia stands to benefit from selecting the strongest candidate, who can easily win the elections, and this in turn puts all issues of fraud to rest.

Large voter turnout can help to determine such a candidate, and a mass propaganda campaign can help bring voters to the polls.

So it seems the public and the hidden benefits are interlinked. The wave of support for the regime since Russia declared Crimea part of its territory ensured that wide-open primaries would come with minimal risks. Up until this March, United Russia members had seemed confident about their party’s future.

To begin with, an educational project called “The Candidate,” which was advertised on regional channels and in local newspapers, aimed to attract prospective primary participants. Next came a countrywide campaign branded “The People’s Candidate,” “The People’s Choice,” and “Our Russia.” United Russia tested the brands in regional legislative elections, running its own candidates and a list of single-member nominees under this umbrella. The scheme worked.

But something went awry in April. United Russia policymakers failed to come up with a brand. There was little advertising in most regions and almost none in others, including Moscow and St. Petersburg. Against this backdrop, it seemed logical that the party should want to eliminate competition in a small number of genuinely competitive districts. Current Duma members and local politicians at odds with governors were removed from candidate lists or quit on their own.

This process can be referred to as “whittling away the vote.” Politicians try to attract little attention to the election and, as a result, it is mostly pro-regime voters that turn out, which ensures the “right” outcome. Assuming that the primaries are a test run for the general election campaign later this year, we’re getting a glimpse of what the government expects might happen. In this instance, a vigorous campaign and competitive elections clearly didn’t fit the scenario.

But in the case of the primaries, United Russia’s approach backfired. Turnout was lower than projected—9.5 percent. In many regions it barely reached 5 percent. In Arkhangelsk region, it was below 3 percent. In regions where a large part of the population is not ethnically Russian, turnout is traditionally high. This caused a different headache for regional authorities: on the one hand, they were supposed to keep primaries under wraps; on the other, the turnout had to be high enough.

Local governments tried the time-tested technique of busing public-sector workers to the polls, which sparked immediate controversy. Party officials had to apologize and promise to annul the results at the polls where such techniques were used.

Whittling away the vote and the lack of a unifying brand brought unexpected results in some election districts. For instance, United Russia candidates lost in the Arkhangelsk and Perm regions: the low turnout meant those with longtime support networks scored victories.

United Russia leaders have already suggested that primary results in some regions should be voided. The final tally won’t be announced until June, on the eve of the party convention, which will have the last say in selecting candidates.

After all the talk of the precedence primaries would have in the candidate nomination process, it turns out the results can be easily reversed.

Finally, United Russia and the presidential administration disappointed influential local groups. The initial primary setup gave candidates greater freedom than general elections would. Candidate registration was simpler. Campaigning opportunities weren’t restricted by the size of the election fund, and there was a promise of fair competition. That’s what candidates had in mind when they started campaigning last fall.

Instead of sticking to their tried-and-tested winning scheme, United Russia officials opened a Pandora’s Box. The primaries sparked controversy, conflicts remain, there was no election campaign, and influential local politicians are angered and ready to take on their detractors.

The primaries have once again highlighted the Kremlin’s domestic policy tactics. First, the administration announces a large project, makes promises, and even begins to deliver on them. Then, fears of failure and loss of control set in, and all work grinds to a halt.

The primaries join a raft of domestic policy gimmicks the Kremlin has used in recent years. Among them are the “People’s Front,” which has failed to become a mass movement and an umbrella organization for the post-Crimea majority, and the new liberal “Party of Growth,” which has failed to attract high-profile moderate opposition activists like Yekaterinburg Mayor Yevgeny Roizman.

The presidential administration has finally revealed its major trait—indecision.

  • Andrey Pertsev