The Kremlin’s tried-and-tested methods of running Russian elections are no longer working. Not only is the minority of voters who actively support the opposition growing, but the majority of Russians are choosing not to vote at all. Yet Russia’s leadership shows no sign of having noticed these trends or of changing its tactics.

Two groups played a key role in deciding Russia’s recent regional and municipal elections, and the Kremlin would be wise not to ignore them. An active reform-minded minority turned out to vote on September 10, while a discontented passive majority stayed at home. Opposition candidates won more victories in several districts of Moscow than expected. The time-old tactic of filtering out potentially dangerous candidates in gubernatorial and regional elections achieved the desired result, but voter turnout was markedly low in many regions. Russian voting behavior is shifting, and election results no longer demonstrate automatic popular support for the governing party United Russia.

The opposition’s gains in Moscow municipal elections surprised both outside observers and opposition leaders. Opposition candidates triumphed in fifteen districts, and 266 new municipal council members supported by former parliamentarian Dmitry Gudkov were elected. Opposition activist Ilya Yashin’s Solidarity movement managed to win Moscow’s Krasnoselsky District. The opposition Yabloko party won a majority in a further six district councils. In Gagarin District, where Vladimir Putin cast his vote, it captured all twelve seats.

Despite this, candidates loyal to the Moscow mayor’s office kept control in a further 100 municipalities. Although 350 opposition candidates, including those from parliamentary opposition parties, managed to win, they will not be able to mount a strong challenge in the next Moscow mayoral elections. This is because the opposition cannot collect 110 signatures representing three-quarters of Moscow’s districts, which are required to register a mayoral candidate.

So, what did the opposition accomplish? Despite an unimpressive campaign, Yabloko’s success showed that people are ready for change. Yashin’s Solidarity, which mounted a targeted campaign in one district to change the government and present a coherent policy agenda, was more in tune with popular opinion. In one local neighborhood, people came to the polls to vote to dismantle the old system.

Voters also rejected candidates from the three parties of the “establishment opposition” which are represented in the State Duma but widely regarded as loyal to the government on key issues. Candidates from the Communist Party, LDPR, and A Just Russia, gained fewer than 100 seats across the city. Angry Muscovites who are ready to change the system evidently regard these parties as being no different from the Kremlin’s party, United Russia. This augurs well for the non-establishment opposition in future elections.

These elections will have taught the Moscow city leadership and the Kremlin another unpleasant lesson, that low voter turnout carries serious risks. When their candidates face a protest vote, their tried-and-tested tactics of reducing voter turnout may not work. Voters dissatisfied with United Russia and the government are coming to the polls in comparable or even greater numbers than public-sector employees who are under orders to vote for the pro-government party.

As expected, there were no surprises in the elections for governors and regional legislatures across Russia. Over the past five years, Vyacheslav Volodin and his successor Sergei Kiriyenko have perfected mechanisms for filtering out undesirable candidates who might threaten the official incumbents.

In thirteen out of sixteen regions, only obscure candidates were allowed to challenge incumbent governors. Candidates who posed even the slightest risk to the establishment were kept off the ballot. Yekaterinburg mayor Evgeny Roizman was barred from running in the Sverdlovsk region, and Senator Vyacheslav Markhayev was missing from the ballot in Buryatia. Thanks to this helping hand from Moscow, incumbents won big victories, ranging from 61 percent of the vote in Karelia to 89 percent in Mordovia.

However, voter turnout was low in many regions. A little over 30 percent of voters in Sverdlovsk and Yaroslavl regions showed up at the polls, despite the fact that the authorities held a lottery where voters could win an apartment or a car. Forty percent showed up in Buryatia, but the region is known for inflating the vote count. In Karelia, voter turnout was only 29 percent.

On the eve of next year’s presidential elections, the Kremlin should be just as worried about those who did not bother to vote as about the minority who were victorious in a few Moscow districts. The Putin factor no longer seems to drive voters to the polls. President Putin visited all the regions where elections were held and met his appointees with much media fanfare. Putin traveled to Yaroslavl three times to support his former bodyguard Dmitry Mironov. Despite that, less than a third of Yaroslavl residents voted for Mironov (although he ultimately received 79 percent of the vote).

Locals do not like many of the president’s appointees to the regions, and when they face off against pre-selected competitors, voters stay at home. If Putin actually enjoyed unequivocal support, people would have answered his call to vote regardless. This was not the case, and the problem of low turnout may reoccur during the presidential elections.

Next year’s presidential elections will doubtless be accompanied by the same atmosphere of self-deception. The Kremlin will continue to keep its distance from a society whose sentiments it does not fully comprehend, ignoring the possibility that the active, reform-minded minority and the discontented passive majority might one day actually join forces. 

  • Andrey Pertsev