United Russia’s Dubious Victory

Unless you’re a United Russia fan, it’s hard to find a silver lining in yesterday’s municipal and regional election results, but here goes: in winning the elections for the Moscow City Duma, the Kremlin may have cemented its loss of Moscow.

After Alexei Navalny’s challenge to Sergei Sobyanin in Moscow’s mayoral elections last fall – far and away the most significant election since Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012 – attention turned to the Moscow City Duma elections, slated for September 14th, 2014, otherwise known as yesterday. Moscow, with its new-found affinity for political activism, its higher-than-average propensity to disapprove of President Vladimir Putin, and its ‘blue banana’ belt of unusually liberal-minded electoral districts, seemed like the ideal proving ground to get a cohort of opposition-backed politicians into office and begin to break down the Kremlin’s seeming monopoly on power. Indeed, in September 2013, just a year ago, Kremlin chess-master Vyacheslav Volodin openly invited the ‘non-systemic’ opposition to contest local elections.

At least initially, the opposition took Volodin at his word, and a number of erstwhile leaders of the Bolotnaya protests lined up to get on the ballot. Any illusions about the degree to which Volodin’s invitation would be honored, however, should have evaporated long ago, well before the campaign began in earnest, and even before the events in and around Ukraine captured everyone’s attention and through Russian politics into a hyper-ideological phantasmagoria. By the time the summer rolled around and the ballots were finalized, most of the leading candidates – including Olga Romanova, Maria Gaidar and Konstantin Yankauskas – had been banned. Independent election monitors, meanwhile, logged numerous violations of electoral law, effectively stymieing the campaigns of many of the candidates who remained.

But whatever chances the opposition had – and they did, in the end, have some – were undone by its two oldest enemies: apathy and acrimony.

To start with the latter, once again the opposition failed to agree on a procedure for agreeing consensus candidates, with the effect that numerous anti-Kremlin candidates often contested the same seat, splitting the vote allowing the United Russia candidate to come out on top. Vladimir Milov has a rather bilious and hyperbolic but nonetheless useful rundown of the results, arguing more or less convincingly that, had the independent opposition groups been able to come together with Yabloko and the Communists to field the strongest anti-Kremlin candidate in each seat, they could have taken at least 18 of the 45 seats in the assembly. Milov is particularly upset with Yabloko, whose decision not to open its ballot slots to independent candidates kept both that party and several other would-be councilmen – not least Milov himself – out of the running.

But Milov saves his choices words (mostly on Facebook and Twitter – they’re not family friendly, so I’m not linking to them here) for Leonid Volkov and the Navalnyi circle, whom he accuses of lowering turnout and thereby sinking the opposition raft as a whole. And it’s true that turnout in Moscow struggled to exceed 25%. Given the ability of the United Russia to ‘turn out’ the votes of civil servants, pensioners and other parts of its core constituency, as well as to fudge the numbers if need be, the opposition would have needed a much higher turnout if it wanted to have any chance whatsoever. In calling the vote illegitimate, Milov said, Navalnyi & co effectively ensured a United Russia victory.

Navalnyi, for his part, stuck after the election to the same point that he made in declaring them illegitimate to begin with: in the absence of open access to the ballot, the elections are a waste of time. Rather than wasting time and resources on contesting elections they would never be allowed to win, he wrote, the opposition should focus on putting political pressure – presumably through protests and other means – on the regime, demanding meaningful electoral reform.

We don’t know, of course, whether those potentially opposition-minded voters who decided to stay home on Sunday did so because they bought Navalnyi’s argument, or because they thought the whole thing a farce. At least some of them, according to recent research by Graeme Robertson and yours truly, are likely to have switched sides, as a result of the patriotic maelstrom of recent months.

But in delivering a Kremlin-dominated city council to the city in Russia where the Kremlin, at least ideologically, dominates least, Putin’s political advisers may be doing him and his party a tremendous disservice. Whatever we may think of it from the outside, the reality is that the annexation of Crimea and the ensuing standoff with the West has given Putin an opportunity to get opposition-minded Russians back on board. By depriving millions of them of a voice in their own city, he is instead giving them one more reason to jump ship.

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