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Navalny’s ‘Smart Vote’ for the win? Politicians and political analysts disagree about the impact of a new strategic voting campaign in Russia

Источник: Meduza
Petr Kovalev / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Following elections on September 8, nearly half of the Moscow City Duma — 20 of 45 seats — now belong to members of the “systemic opposition” (registered parties and candidates that ostensibly oppose the ruling party, United Russia). Before the elections, anti-corruption, “non-systemic” oppositionist Alexey Navalny launched a special initiative called “Smart Vote,” designed to rally support for the registered candidates in each precinct with the best chance of defeating United Russia’s picks. With the results in hand, Navalny calls his experiment in “strategic voting” a “fantastic victory,” and he promises to use Smart Vote again in future elections. The candidates who actually won Sunday’s races, however, say it’s difficult to gauge the real impact of Navalny’s initiative.

Navalny’s headquarters: A fantastic victory

“Even last night, I myself didn’t believe in what we were counting on: United Russia losing in most of the precincts,” Navalny’s Moscow campaign coordinator, Oleg Stepanov, told Meduza. “But in the end that’s just what happened.”

Stepanov credits Navalny’s Smart Vote system with a “fantastic, forceful victory” that he says casts doubt on several close election wins by pro-government candidates in a handful of precincts. 

The Smart Vote system did have a few hiccups, however. For example, Navalny’s team endorsed Communist Party candidate Vladislav Zhukovsky over the independent Roman Yuneman in Moscow Precinct Number 30. Before the election, Yuneman insisted that he was the strongest challenger to United Russia, and he backed up his claim with sociological polling that indicated he could win the race. In the end, Yuneman only narrowly lost to the candidate supported by the Mayor’s Office. 

“Yuneman ran an amazing campaign,” Stepanov told Meduza, “ but the principles of the Smart Vote system meant that we had to endorse a communist in this precinct, because the Communist Party previously finished second here by a narrow margin.” He nevertheless believes that Yuneman won his race, and says meddling by the authorities — not Smart Vote’s recommendations — are what tipped the election’s results. Specifically, Stepanov points to alleged ballot stuffing in online voting. “The election of [Mayor-Sobyanin-supported candidate Margarita] Rusetskaya is the theft of Roman Yuneman’s seat,” Stepanov says.

The Communists: Muscovites were already going to vote for us

Of the 20 oppositionists who won seats in the Moscow City Duma, 13 were endorsed by the Communist Party, which technically makes the Communists the biggest beneficiaries of the Smart Vote system.

Valery Rashkin, the head of the Communist Party’s city committee in Moscow, told Meduza that he welcomes “anything aimed at uniting the opposition in the destruction of the United Russia monolith,” but he warns that it’s “very difficult to determine the effectiveness” of Navalny’s new initiative. “The Communist Party has been gaining [in the Moscow City Duma],” Rashkin pointed out. “First we had just one deputy, then three, then five, and now we’ll have 13.”

Rashkin says he’s convinced that voters recognized the Communist Party’s candidates “thanks to their work during the campaign,” and not just because of instructions from Alexey Navalny. “All our candidates performed well — all of them!” Rashkin emphasized. “Some didn’t get enough votes to win their races, and this includes candidates who had Smart Vote’s endorsement and candidates who didn’t. The Communist Party is an excellent political base from which to push back and triumph, but a lot depends on the candidates themselves.”

“Golos” election monitors: The Communist Party wouldn’t have won 13 seats without Navalny’s Smart Vote initiative

“Golos” coordinator Stanislav Andreichuk says the Communist Party’s brand “didn’t play a key role in the protest vote.” “Even Communist Party candidate Vadim Kumin, whose campaign was negotiated with the authorities, lost his race, which means the issue isn’t branding, but something else. In Kumin’s precinct, voters elected [oppositionist and Yabloko candidate] Darya Besedina. Besides her campaign and calls from Navalny to vote for her, I see no other factors, [meaning that] Smart Vote’s impact on the final result in Moscow was great,” Andreichuk told Meduza

Darya Besedina: It’s hard to gauge Smart Vote’s effectiveness

Besedina told Meduza that she thinks it’s difficult to say how effective Navalny’s Smart Vote system was on Sunday. “We ran an active campaign, so it’s unclear how many votes we got because of Smart Vote, plus there’s a strong intersection of my supporters who voted for me and Smart Vote’s supporters,” she explained.

Besedina nevertheless says she doesn’t doubt Smart Vote’s effectiveness in other precincts. “It’s a very interesting tool for upsetting elections in protest-leaning precincts, where there’s no strong opposition candidate campaigning,” she added.

Navalny’s headquarters: Pro-government pundits and online bots have launched a campaign to deny Smart Vote’s effectiveness

Navalny’s Moscow coordinator, Oleg Stepanov, also told Meduza that “pro-government pundits and bots” are flooding the news media and social networks with commentary that denies Smart Vote’s effectiveness. “It’s part of their methodology,” he claims. “Everyone who actually campaigned (or didn’t even campaign but won) knows perfectly well that it was only collective action within the Smart Vote framework that led to such an amazing result. The candidates we supported have been calling and writing all morning, thanking us for the support, and we’ve been congratulating them on the victory.”

Stepanov notes that Smart Vote was implemented not only in Moscow, but also in other regional elections: “Khabarovsk, Irkutsk, and St. Petersburg’s municipal elections, and about 30 other elections, where pro-government candidates took a beating. This was thanks precisely to the Smart Vote strategy.”

“Golos” election monitors: Smart Vote didn’t work outside Moscow

“Golos” coordinator Stanislav Andreichuk says Smart Vote’s performance outside the capital wasn’t so impressive. “In other regions, Navalny and other opposition members of the same wing still lack the developed organizational structure and media capacity,” Andreichuk says. “The political views there are also more left-leaning, due to the more complex socio-economic situation: people are poorer. In most cases, they’re not interested in politics at all. If they do vote, it’s for the Communist Party or LDPR as party brands.”

At the same time, Andreichuk says Smart Vote did prove influential in Novosibirsk’s mayoral election, where Navalny-ally Sergey Boiko finished second with roughly 20 percent of the vote.

Political expert Alexander Kynev: Smart Vote succeeded because of mistakes by the Moscow Mayor’s Office

Political expert Alexander Kynev says mistakes by the Mayor’s Office are the main reason for protest voting in Moscow and Smart Vote’s apparent success. “If it weren’t for the political bloc’s greed, its unwillingness to allow just a few people [onto the ballot], then the election probably would have been quiet, like it’s always been,” Kynev says. “By creating a scandal, the authorities moved the situation to a plane of moral-ethical protest, and the vote was transformed into a referendum on what was happening in the city, including the crackdown on demonstrators. Navalny offered a political technology against the authorities’ basic process, which had come to be expressed as a sledgehammer to the head!”

Kynev says he’s sure that Smart Vote wouldn’t have helped the opposition, without these mistakes by the Mayor’s Office. At the same time, he says voters who cast ballots according to Smart Vote’s recommendations are unlikely to feel disappointed if those candidates go on to govern in the interests of the Mayor’s Office: “Voters don’t care what they do in the City Duma. Smart Vote doesn’t raise any expectations on its winners. For protest-minded voters, this was just a single act — a gesture.”

Navalny’s headquarters: Smart Vote will return for future elections

The Smart Vote experiment will be back for next year’s elections. “This is our long-term strategy. This time, we analyzed about 30 regions, and next year we’re expanding the front, and we’ll be able to consolidate more voters in more elections,” says Oleg Stepanov. “Now we see clearly that the authorities are afraid that people will take to the streets. They’re afraid of major anti-corruption investigations. And they’re afraid of consolidated voting against their sponsored candidates.”

Text by Andrey Pertsev

Translation by Kevin Rothrock