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Everybody’s a winner! Russia’s new three-day voting scheme delivers huge victory margins for incumbent governors, while Navalny’s coalition succeeds in two municipal races

Source: Meduza
Egor Aliev / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

On September 13, Russia completed its first three-day elections in races across the country for governors, mayors, and local city council members. Gubernatorial candidates with the authorities’ backing won first-round victories everywhere in record-high numbers, and United Russia racked up majorities in all regional assemblies. Three of the four new party projects that are considered to have the Kremlin’s support got seats in regional parliaments, exempting them from the need to collect signatures to compete in future State Duma elections. The opposition did, however, achieve some success in elections for the city councils in Novosibirsk and Tomsk. Meduza special correspondent Andrey Pertsev breaks down the weekend’s voting results. 

Three-day voting boosted record popular support for governors

Eighteen regions across Russia held direct gubernatorial elections over the weekend. In seven of these races, the authorities’ candidates won more than 80 percent of the ballots cast. For example, according to the official results, Tambov Governor Alexander Nikitin won a nation-high 86.5 percent, while Sevastopol Governor Mikhail Razvozhaev won 85.7 percent. Tatarstan President Rustem Minnikhanov won a traditionally high 85.4 percent of the vote, and Jewish Autonomous Province Governor Rostislav Goldstein was re-elected with a modest 82.5 percent of all ballots.

Elsewhere across the country, another six candidates with the Kremlin’s support won more than 70 percent of the votes in their regions. Only one gubernatorial contender backed by Moscow — LDPR candidate and Smolensk Governor Alexey Ostrovsky — received less than 60 percent of the vote. (United Russia didn’t field a candidate to run against him.)

In September 2019, when Russia held 16 gubernatorial races, just four candidates won more than 80 percent of the vote and only three won more than 70 percent. 

In other words, Russian officials’ decision to spread voting across three days has obviously benefitted the state authorities’ candidates. In Tatarstan, for example, 60.8 percent of all ballots were cast “early” on Friday and Saturday. This figure was 59.9 percent in the Jewish Autonomous Province, 51 percent in the Tambov region, 58.9 percent in the Krasnodar Territory, and 35 percent in Sevastopol.

These numbers include so-called “stump voting,” where election workers collected ballots outside polling stations at random locations, such as from the back of trucks and in grocery store lobbies. It’s impossible to say precisely how many “stump votes” were recorded on September 11 and 12 because the Central Election Commission logged all ballots received on these two days as voting at mobile ballot boxes. 

Generally speaking, where election monitors were more numerous, the authorities’ candidates performed more poorly. In the Tambov gubernatorial race, for example, the incumbent governor won almost 86 percent of the vote but only around 40 percent of the votes in the city of Tambov itself, where independent observers were more widespread and where city council elections were also held over the weekend.

Runoff elections were considered possible in the Irkutsk and Arkhangelsk regions, but opposition candidates fell short

Voters in the Arkhangelsk region have always demonstrated more oppositionist tendencies than most other places in Russia. For instance, United Russia had its third-worst showing here in the 2011 State Duma elections. Four years later, Governor Igor Orlov won just 53 percent of the vote and only narrowly escaped a runoff election against local legislative assemblywoman and LDPR member Olga Ositsyna. 

In this year’s gubernatorial race, the authorities’ candidate, Alexander Tsylbulsky, faced off against two locally well-known challengers: “Just Russia” regional assembly faction leader Irina Chirkova and LDPR legislative assemblyman Sergey Pivkov. Earlier this year, Tsylbulsky also provoked major protests in the Nenets Autonomous Okrug (NAO) when he advocated its total integration with the Arkhangelsk region. After demonstrations in city squares and several motor rallies, the authorities abandoned their latest effort to merge the regions fully. When the country voted on constitutional amendments this summer, the Nenets Autonomous Okrug was the only region in Russia where more than half of all voters rejected the reforms. Technically a part of the Arkhangelsk region, NAO residents can vote in Arkhangelsk’s gubernatorial race, and 62 percent of the voters in NAO supported Irina Chirkova over the weekend. Despite this opposition, election officials say Tsylbulsky won re-election with 69 percent of all votes.

According to the official results, Igor Kobzev won the Irkutsk region’s gubernatorial race with 60.7 percent of the vote. Five years ago, the region elected Communist Sergey Levchenko, who was forced to resign before the end of his term. Levchenko endured years of political attacks on network television and, last year, the federal authorities criticized his handling of flooding in Tulun.

In Irkutsk’s gubernatorial race this year, the Communist Party nominated State Duma deputy Mikhail Shchapov, a short-spoken FSB veteran. The party considered other, more colorful candidates, such as Irkutsk Senator Viktor Markhaev (who voted against the constitutional amendments and questioned the police response to peaceful protesters in Moscow last summer), but Shchapov was the politician most acceptable to the Kremlin. Promoting his candidacy, the Communist Party emphasized Shchapov’s roots in Irkutsk and the region’s equal standing with Moscow (a theme that resonates locally). Shchapov didn’t begin campaigning until late in the race, however, and he barely mentioned the Communist Party when promoting his candidacy. One of his campaign slogans — “For truth!” — even repeated the name of a new pro-Kremlin party led by the writer Zakhar Prilepin, most likely confusing voters. In the end, the Communist Party’s candidate won just 25 percent of the vote.

In regional assembly races, United Russia lost some ground, but not much

United Russia set a new low with its performance in the Komi Republic, where it won just 28.8 percent of votes for seats in the State Council — half the support it got in the same contest five years ago. The Communist Party still finished in second place, however, winning 14.7 percent of the votes after supporting local ethnic activists and protests against a controversial landfill outside Arkhangelsk. 

In the same race, two “spoiler” political parties (arguably created to pull votes from Russia’s Communist Party: KPSS and the “Communists of Russia”) won an additional 7.6 percent of the vote, meaning that the Communists could conceivably have won more than 20 percent of all votes. In addition to United Russia, the Communist Party, and LDPR, “Green Alternative” (another of the Kremlin’s “party projects”) also won seats in Komi’s State Council. Komi was reportedly designated as the group’s “support region,” where the local authorities “facilitated” the party’s election to the legislative assembly, ensuring that Green Alternative will be able to compete in the next State Duma elections without needing to collect signatures for ballot registration. Green Alternative didn’t win seats anywhere else across the country. With a party list headed by Maxim Shugaley (a political strategist now jailed in Libya with close ties to the oligarch Evgeny Prigozhin), the “Rodina” faction also won seats in the Komi Republic’s State Council.

The Kostroma region’s legislative assembly elections were also among United Russia’s three worst finishes over the weekend. The ruling party won just 32 percent of the vote (five years ago, it won 50 percent). In the Novosibirsk region, United Russia won 37.8 percent of the vote — a slight decline from the 44 percent it won in 2015.

Based on official tallies, United Russia’s best legislative-assembly results were in the Belgorod region (66.5 percent of the vote) and the Voronezh region and the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug (each 65 percent). In all three of these areas, early voting on September 11 and 12 was particularly high (46 percent, 36.9 percent, and 34.6 percent, respectively). Once again, it seems that concentrations of election observers affected the reported voting results. For example, in the city of Voronezh (which held city council elections simultaneously and where monitors were stationed at most polling places), United Russia captured just 35 percent of the vote. 

Russia’s ruling political party will enjoy majorities in regional legislative assemblies everywhere that held elections over the weekend, thanks to victories by its candidates in single-seat constituencies, like in the Novosibirsk region, where it won in 19 of 23 districts. In two of these outlier races, moreover, self-nominated pro-government candidates won.

The Communist party performed best in the Kurgan region (where it won 19 percent of the vote) and in the Novosibirsk and Kostroma regions (winning 17 percent in each). LDPR did its best in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug (15.5 percent) and Just Russia had its top showing in the Chelyabinsk region (14.3 percent). 

The Ryazan region’s legislative assembly will be Russia’s most diverse: in addition to the four parliamentary parties (United Russia, LDPR, Just Russia, and the Communist Party), the group will also include members from “For Truth,” “New People,” and the “Pensioners' Party for Justice.” Six political parties won seats in legislative assemblies in the Komi Republic and the Kaluga and Kostroma regions. Only three parties, on the other hand, won enough votes for seats in the Belgorod regional parliament: United Russia, LDPR, and the Communist Party.

Of all the party projects cooked up with the Kremlin’s support at the start of the year, “New People” did the best over the weekend, winning seats in four regional assemblies, in Novosibirsk, Kostroma, Kaluga, and Ryazan. The group didn’t run particularly strong candidates, but it campaigned vigorously. 

“For Truth” and “Green Alternative” managed to win regional assembly seats only in the Ryazan and Komi regions, respectively. “For Truth” curiously won between 1 and 2 percent of the votes in most legislative assembly contests across Russia. “World of Tanks” creator Vyacheslav Makarov’s “Direct Democracy Party” failed across the board, however, meaning that it will have to collect signatures to field candidates in the next State Duma elections.

Navalny’s coalition had some success in Siberian cities

The opposition coalition “Novosibirsk 2020,” developed around Alexey Navalny’s local office and his regional coordinator Sergey Boiko, won five of the 50 seats in the city council, according to preliminary data. Boiko himself won a council seat, defeating the group’s incumbent vice speaker, Communist Party member Renat Suleimanov. Before dawn on September 14, however, in the district where coalition candidate Vyacheslav Yakimenko won, election observers discovered 300 allegedly stuffed ballots in an apparent late effort to undo Yakimenko’s victory. If the suspicious votes are counted, the district’s seat will go to United Russia candidate Evgeny Yakovenko — one of the local officials named in the Anti-Corruption Foundation’s recent investigative report about malfeasance in Novosibirsk.

United Russia lost its existing majority of 33 seats in the Novosibirsk City Council, winning just 22 spots over the weekend, but the authorities won’t likely have serious problems exerting control. Four seats on the council went to LDPR, which is led in the city by State Duma deputy Dmitry Savelev, the former son-in-law of Senator and United Russia member Nadezhda Boltenko, who’s invested in the local construction business. Igor Ukraintsev, the former LDPR deputy nominated by the Green Party who works as an executive at the “Strizhi” construction company, also won a seat on the council. (Ukraintsev also had the support of the “Smart Vote” system — Alexey Navalny’s initiative for endorsing the candidates supposedly likeliest to defeat the authorities’ favorites.) The Communists won eight seats — four less than in the last city council. 

United Russia suffered more significant losses in the Tomsk City Council race, where it won just 11 of 37 seats. The Communists won eight spots, and independent candidates (including two representatives of Navalny’s local office) won six seats. Candidates from Just Russia, Yabloko, and New People each won three seats. LDPR walked away with two seats, and the Party of Growth won one.

The “Rodina” party had its local-best performance in the Tambov City Council elections, winning 45 percent of the seats awarded by party list and all single-seat constituencies. Most of its candidates were former United Russia members disillusioned with the party. The candidates named on Rodina’s party list are considered to be loyal to the city’s ex-mayor, Maxim Kosenkov.

Text by Andrey Pertsev

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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