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United Russia’s strange death How Russia’s ruling political party ‘abandoned’ the Moscow City Duma elections

Source: Meduza
Stoyan Vasaev / TASS

Among the politicians running this September for seats in the Moscow City Duma, there’s not a single candidate from the country’s ruling political party, United Russia, even though it held primaries in May to determine its favorites from among its members and supporters. Belonging to United Russia has become a liability for politicians in the capital, though the party’s leadership says candidates are merely trying to avoid “taking the easy road” in this fall’s elections (candidates from political parties with parliamentary representation don’t have to collect signatures to get on the ballot).

United Russia didn’t nominate a single candidate for this September’s Moscow City Duma elections, according to information published on the Moscow City Election Commission’s website. In the overwhelming majority of election districts, however, candidates loyal to the mayor’s office and supported by the party’s Moscow branch are nevertheless running for office — as independents.

Meduza’s sources at City Hall and United Russia previously stated that most of the authorities’ candidates would run as independents because association with the party has become a liability with voters in Moscow. The one exception to this trend was rumored to be Moscow City Duma deputy chairman Andrey Metelsky, the party’s leader in the capital, but in the end he, too, filed paperwork to run as an independent.

Similarly, United Russia members Moscow City Duma chairman Alexey Shaposhnikov, faction head Stepan Orlov, and another eight deputies seeking re-election have also decided to distance themselves from the party and run as independent candidates. The same goes for several United Russia members hoping to be elected for the first time, including Svetlana Volotsev (in the second election district), Igor Buskin (13th district), former State Duma deputy Elena Nikolaeva (23rd district), and Elena Samyshina (28th district).

Several other candidates running as independents are not formally United Russia members, but they are nevertheless closely tied to the party. Current Moscow City Duma deputy Larisa Kartavtseva, who’s running in the 10th election district, is listed as the co-chairperson of the Moscow Council of United Russia Supporters. Natalia Pochinok, the rector of the Russian State Social University, who’s running in the 14th district, is identified on United Russia’s website as the coordinator of the party’s “Human Well-Being” discussion forum. On the same website, Alexander Kozlov, running in the 38th district, is listed as the coordinator of the party’s “Literate Consumer School” nationwide program. Additionally, Diagnostic Center No. 3 chief physician and current Vykhino-Zhulebino District municipal deputy Igor Dyagilev, who’s running in the 24th district, belongs to the United Russia's faction in the district council.

All in all, out of 40 candidates with close ties to City Hall, half are either United Russia members or they’re somehow affiliated with the party, but none of them is publicizing this connection.

The city’s authorities have loyal candidates in other political parties, as well. This includes two candidates from the Communist Party: Moscow City Duma deputy Leonid Zyuganov (the grandson of the party’s long-time leader), and businessman and former Moscow City Duma deputy Vadim Kumin. To run in the elections, neither politician will need to collect signatures (between five and six thousand, depending on the election district).

Speaking to Meduza, Andrey Metelsky, the head of United Russia’s Moscow branch, explained the independent candidacy trend as a signal to voters: “United Russia wants to show that it’s not afraid of challenges, and it’s not afraid to reach out to Muscovites to collect signatures and ask for their trust. We’re not going to hide behind the law on political parties that allows us not to collect signatures. The [Moscow] branch made this case to the [national] political council and received approval,” Metelsky said.

In late May on Facebook, Metelsky also wrote about the benefits of rejecting the party’s brand, arguing, “We’ll pull the rug out from under our critics, who love to insist that United Russia is afraid of Muscovites,” and “Collecting signatures is a good opportunity to get an early start on campaigning and announce ourselves as potential candidates for the Moscow City Duma.”

In fact, United Russia already utilized the political mechanism that exists to campaign early and give candidates the chance to announce themselves to voters: party primaries. United Russia’s charter requires primaries, which is why they were held from May 20 to 23, albeit as inconspicuously as possible. The contest was barely covered in the media, and the selection format bore little resemblance to voting: ballots were available only to party members and specially chosen activists. As explained above, the primary’s winners later refused United Russia’s public support.

The absence of United Russia candidates in Moscow’s elections this September doesn’t mean the capital’s legislature won’t have any United Russia deputies, however. “There will absolutely be a party faction in the Moscow City Duma!” Andrey Metelsky told Meduza.

United Russia has managed this feat before in other areas, after less than impressive election performances, recruiting winning independents for its factions in local legislatures. The most striking example of this curious faction formation was four years ago in Kaliningrad’s Baltic District Municipal Council, where the party lost in all 15 single-mandate districts. Immediately after the elections, United Russia formed a majority faction comprising eight of the 15 politicians who’d just finished successful campaigns against United Russia candidates.

Story by Andrey Pertsev

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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