Russian Vote Exposes Chinks in Putin’s Armor

(Bloomberg Opinion) — Final results are trickling in after voters across Russia cast ballots this weekend in local, regional and gubernatorial elections. The ruling United Russia party is declaring victory, with Kremlin-supported candidates sweeping all governorships that were up for grabs. Yet there’s plenty for President Vladimir Putin to worry about too in what’s considered a dry run for the 2021 parliamentary elections, from a handful of wins for a galvanized opposition to indications the cost of victory is rising. 

Regional and local polls — always harder to massage and coordinate than a single, national race — have become expressions of disaffection in Russia, a trend amplified since 2019 by anti-corruption campaigner Alexey Navalny’s tactical voting strategy. That trend was expected to be even more evident this year, given a shrinking economy, a pandemic still taking its toll and lackluster oil prices. As I’ve written before, protests in far-flung regions in Russia and in neighboring Belarus, combined with the dramatic poisoning of Navalny last month, made matters worse. 

With 9,000 races, there’s plenty of data to sift through. A few conclusions, though, are already apparent. It’s clear that in high-profile gubernatorial races, the party has avoided the embarrassing upsets of the past. United Russia’s general secretary has called what he sees as a “conclusive victory.”

In a system that is highly centralized, picking a regional boss is supposed to be a formality even after direct elections were restored in 2012. Upsets are keenly felt, as in 2018 when popular governor Sergei Furgal beat the pro-government opponent in the far eastern region of Khabarovsk in a landslide. Furgal was arrested on murder charges in July, a detention that has triggered persistent demonstrations locally. (He denies the accusations.)

This time there was no such shock. That’s no small feat, given potential trouble spots such as Irkutsk in southeastern Siberia, a region still suffering the after-effects of devastating floods last year that helped precipitate the exit of the incumbent leader, one of a tiny minority of Communist Party governors. In the end, government-appointed interim head Igor Kobzev, a candidate with no previous links to the region, secured more than 60% of the vote.

While Kobzev’s race is indicative of what is possible when the Kremlin deploys its resources, it’s also a sign of just how much effort it will take to keep winning, specifically when it comes to less subtle tactics. In Irkutsk, a promising opponent was refused registration. Elsewhere, even candidates from tame opposition parties found themselves barred from tight races, as in Kamchatka.

Extended voting, brought in because of the coronavirus, helped government candidates too. The election commission has dismissed allegations by Golos, an independent election-monitoring group, of widespread violations, but it is hard to brush away implausibly high turnouts, as in the Jewish Autonomous Oblast or in Tatarstan, where some polling stations registered participation of 100%. Weak showings are no more reassuring, with disaffection visible in regions such as Arkhangelsk, in the far north.

For all the victory lapping, the government will be unsettled by the well-publicized wins secured by the Navalny camp. In the Siberian cities of Novosibirsk and Tomsk, where he was working right before collapsing on a flight back to Moscow, United Russia has now lost its majority, a defeat the opposition attributes to the smart voting campaign. As importantly, activists in both places secured council seats.

The cities represent a vital Russian middle ground, between conservative rural communities and Moscow urbanites. The protest vote will encourage the Navalny movement — even if it’s as yet unclear how the campaign will turn disparate candidates from different political parties into loyal supporters — or even a more coherent electoral program. The Kremlin still has plenty of levers it can pull to secure the majority it needs come the State Duma election in 2021. It has brought in insurance policies, including new parties, three of which have just won seats in regional legislatures, giving them the right to run next year without having to collect signatures. Election officials, meanwhile, are already discussing fresh tweaks to the rules.

The weekend’s results have shown that even a less-popular United Russia can get the job done, but it will have to work harder.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities and environmental, social and governance issues. Previously, she was an associate editor for Reuters Breakingviews, and editor and correspondent for Reuters in Singapore, India, the U.K., Italy and Russia.

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