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Russia: Opposition Distracted by Virtual Elections, Loses Real Elections

RuNet Echo This post is part of RuNet Echo, a Global Voices project to interpret the Russian language internet. All Posts · Learn more

In August, Global Voices reported on several activists from Russia’s protest movement running for office in local elections. They hoped it would be easier to win these small-scale contests, which took place last weekend. On October 14, amid low turnout and perennial allegations of electoral fraud, Russians participated in thousands [ru] of elections across the country, voting for local mayors, city councilors, and regional legislatures. Five governorships were also in play, for the first time since Vladimir Putin canceled such elections seven years ago.

Dirty tricks and mudslinging

When the dust had settled, the result was that members of the opposition movement did not do well in the few places where they fielded candidates. The United Russia party, and other pro-Putin candidates, took the lion’s share of the votes in most races. The only nominally-opposition parties to enjoy even limited success were the usual suspects: the Communists, LDPR, and Just Russia. It remains unclear how much of United Russia’s success is due to fraud and other illegal actions. Nevertheless, there are widespread reports of dirty tactics.

Evgeniya Chirikova, Leader of the Khimki Forest Defenders, in Khimki, Russia (19 April 2011), By Daniel Beilinson, CC 2.0.

For example, journalist Dmitry Aleshkovsky blogged about the elections in a small district in the republic of Tatarstan in very apocalyptic terms [ru]:

Я видел умирающих от холеры людей в тени развалин разрушенного землетрясением Порт-о-Пренса, я видел тысячи сожженных домов в грузинских селах Южной Осетии […]. И эти выборы вызывают во мне примерно такое же количество ужаса, как и всё описанное выше.

I have seen people dying of cholera in the shade of ruined houses in Port-au-Prince demolished by an earthquake, I have seen thousands of burned houses in Georgian villages in South Ossetia […]. These [Russian regional] elections make me feel about the same amount of horror as what I've described above.

Aleshkovsky went on to describe numerous violations, ranging from extra ballots in voting boxes to the forcible removal of independent observers.

The extent to which pro-government fraud was present, even in the smallest elections and for the most irrelevant of positions, is striking. Sergey Ezhov, a member of Limonov’s Other Russia movement, ran for city council in the tiny town of Sarai. He described [ru] that experience in his blog:

Беспредел началася за несколько дней до даты голосования. Когда, видимо, жулики поняли, что я прохожу в депутаты. Спокойные и тихие Сараи завалили лживыми и прокационными листовками, по месту работы и учебы собирали избирателей и приказывали ни в коем случае не голосовать за Ежова. В это же время полиция начала препятствовать в агитации нам.

The lawlessness began a few days before the vote. When the cardsharps understood that I’m making it to deputy. Quiet and peaceful Sarai was inundated with deceitful and provocative leaflets, voters were rounded up where they work and study, and told to not for Ezhov for any reason. At the same time, the police began to interfere with our campaigning.

Ezhov lost. He had thought that the irrelevancy of the post he sought would make him immune from government pressure. Apparently, he was wrong in that assumption. As it turns out, some of these dirty tactics were used against United Russia members by other United Russia members. Such was the case in Angara, reports [ru] Sergey Schmidt, a local political science professor. A United Russia candidate for mayor seemingly got the short shrift -– his campaign was plagued by scandals, the governor openly supported his opponent, and so on. He ended up winning, however, largely because voters wanted to “support and help the person who is being hounded,” Schmidt argues. It seems that the mudslinging had gone overboard.

Eggs all in a single basket, where they are safest

Screenshot from the opposition's Elections Commission website for the Coordinating Council vote. 19 October 2012.

Most notably, the opposition's headliner also lost. Evgenya Chirikova’s bid for mayor in the Moscow suburb of Khimki was the only race where the movement came together in a meaningful way, marshaling significant donations and campaign volunteers. Yet, Chirikova still lost, with just 20% of the vote. Although there were some irregularities, exit polls [ru] confirmed the official vote tally. Chirikova lost, even though she is one of the better known leaders of the opposition, particularly in Khimki, where she's an active member of the local community.

In short, the opposition fared poorly. This is not in dispute. But there is also no arguing that the protest movement honestly dedicated itself to winning these contests. Chirikova was in fact the only major candidate to represent the new movement. Local elections could have been a great opportunity to try campaigning on a local level and perhaps decentralize the protest movement, devolving it to regional populations. Yet this opportunity seems to have been thrown away. For the past month, the nation's October 14 elections were scarcely on the blogosphere's radar (Chirikova being the exception that proves the rule).

Indeed, for the past month, Russian netizens have been distracted by a different set of elections — the online elections for the Coordinating Council of the opposition, beginning today and ending on October 21. Rather than compete in formal elections, dozens of local activists joined the Coordinating Council race, participating in televised debates, an essay contest, campaigning, and a host of intra-opposition squabbles — all for a seat in an institution that will be completely divorced from any actual power, even after it actually comes to exist.

Perhaps, if the massive get-out-the-vote machine tasked with mobilizing netizen voters had shifted focus to actual voters, it would have succeeded in increasing the meager October 14 turnout (especially considering how difficult it is become a verified voter on cvk2012.org [ru]). As it stands, it’s almost as if the Coordinating Council induced election fatigue. Hopefully it was worth it.

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