Film director Vladimir Bortko’s decision to drop out of the race for governor of St. Petersburg is a reminder that it’s not just the much-publicized elections for the Moscow city parliament that are scheduled for September 8: there are regional elections taking place across the country that day. This year has turned out to be even trickier for the Kremlin than last year, when candidates backed by the ruling authorities lost gubernatorial campaigns in three different regions.

This time around, candidates from the ruling United Russia party are having to distance themselves even more actively from the party brand, and are in real danger of losing even to politicians like Bortko, who are far from the most popular. Amid all of this, the federal center is apparently conducting experiments in selecting the ideal populist candidate with a view to the 2021 elections to the State Duma. 

Bortko, a State Duma deputy who represents the Communist Party, withdrew his candidacy for St. Petersburg governor just a week before the election. He made no bones about what had prompted his decision, saying: “I don’t want to play these games. The cards are marked…”

Before the protests over the Moscow city parliament elections erupted, the election for head of Russia’s second city had been considered the biggest campaign of the summer, involving as it does one of the least popular candidates backed by the authorities in the upcoming elections: acting governor Alexander Beglov. He was appointed to the role last fall, replacing Georgy Poltavchenko, who had been unpopular with residents due to his religious zeal and lack of openness.

Beglov turned out to be even more jingoistic than his predecessor, and locals complained that his administration’s efforts to keep the streets passable during the snowy winter were abysmal. The presidential administration, realizing it would be hard for Beglov to win the election, wanted Vladimir Putin to choose another candidate, but the president refused to replace his old associate. So the team working on the elections had to focus on finding convenient rivals for Beglov: ones well known enough to make defeating them a suitable achievement, but not ones popular enough to pose a real threat—like the director Bortko, whose recent conservative outpourings hadn’t won him any new supporters in the liberally minded city. 

Bortko’s sudden decision to drop out of the race makes Beglov look like a weak candidate who was threatened even by a not particularly popular rival from the Communist Party. Now, protest-minded residents may be further annoyed by the narrowing of the pool of candidates, and the St. Petersburg election may just have got more interesting again. 

In other regions preparing to elect a new governor, the Kremlin is also trying to reduce the chance of a second round of voting by making sure only the most unimpressive rivals are allowed to stand. In Zabaikalye, acting governor Alexander Osipov is only facing obscure candidates from smaller parties: the Communists, LDPR, and A Just Russia all failed to field a candidate.

The election campaigns of both candidates backed by the authorities and, to some extent, those backed by the in-system opposition reflect the crisis taking place in Russia’s party system (and in the political system as a whole). There is not one United Russia candidate running in the elections for the Moscow city parliament, and six of the sixteen current regional heads running for election are campaigning as independents. 

Many candidates representing the in-system parties (and not just United Russia) are trying not to accentuate their party brand during their campaign, either hiding the party logo in small print, or omitting the party symbol in their campaign materials altogether, as in the case of the athlete Anton Shipulin and singer Vika Tsyganova, who are running for the United Russia party in by-elections to the State Duma.

Party brands are becoming a burden, dragging candidates down. It’s easier to campaign on personal qualities: then there’s no need to justify increasing the retirement age (in the case of United Russia candidates), the Stalinism of the party’s leaders (for the Communists), the antics of LDPR’s firebrand leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, or the party leadership’s collaboration with the Kremlin (in the case of A Just Russia). Of course, for little-known candidates, it’s easier to focus on the party: at least people know the party. But for popular candidates, or ones who are prepared to spend a lot of money on becoming popular, party associations have become a hindrance. 

There’s only one instance of a party brand gaining strength during a 2019 election campaign, and that’s the LDPR in the Khabarovsk region. Residents there are prepared to support the party, but for them it is no longer the party of its longtime leader Zhirinovsky, but the organization of the governor they elected last year, Sergei Furgal. Furgal has transformed into an archetype of the new wave of populist politicians, with his Instagram account, his penchant for dressing down local officials, and his willingness to talk to protesters.

The Russian political system is spontaneously moving toward the half-forgotten scenario of non-partisan electoral blocs that prevailed in elections to Russia’s regional parliaments in the 1990s and early 2000s. Those blocs were generally formed by independents and members of various parties around the regional governor or their most high-profile rival, and were based on regional identity. 

Right now, similar blocs are forming around Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, within the Khabarovsk branch of LDPR, and in the Crimean city of Sevastopol around Alexei Chaly, the region’s most popular politician. 

Pure pragmatism is driving politicians to tried and tested schemes from the past. The center is also playing a role, reducing the number of seats in legislative assemblies allocated under party list voting to create more seats for single-mandate deputies. And it’s only natural that single-mandate candidates should unite to form blocs and quasi-blocs that don’t have the bad reputation of the old parties. Tactically, it makes short-term victory more probable, but it also damages the party system, which is already fairly artificial, and is starting to crack. Nor will the authorities’ attempts to try out a new kind of candidate—inspired by Ukraine’s new president, former comic actor Volodymyr Zelensky—help the system. 

Running against the singer Tsyganova in the Khabarovsk region by-election for a seat in the State Duma is the former diplomat Nikolai Platoshkin, representing the Communists. Platoshkin, a regular participant on Russian talk shows, actively criticizes the federal center, his rival Tsyganova, the governor Furgal, and even individual Communist Party members. A TV star-turned-politician is as good a new model as any for candidates for State Duma elections: someone who criticizes everyone, but then on fundamental issues will always willingly support the authorities. 

It’s possible that the Kremlin is studying the potential of this kind of candidate via the example set by Platoshkin. Against the backdrop of the refusal to register opposition candidates for the Moscow city parliament elections, the Kremlin’s experiments in the regions are going unnoticed, but next year, they will certainly become more active.

The global trend of populists winning elections; actors, singers and other celebrities turning their hand to politics; and the departure of traditional parties are all things Russia has already seen, and not so long ago either. Fifteen years ago, for example, the comedian Mikhail Yevdokimov was elected as governor of the Altai region. It would not be hard to return to that time: there is nothing to stop the presidential administration from looking for more where he came from. 

  • Andrey Pertsev