Dishonoring the beloved city Everything you need to know about St. Petersburg’s ‘dirty elections’
Russia’s cultural capital of St. Petersburg has a reputation for “dirty elections” — one so bad that even Russian election officials can’t help but criticize them. And this weekend’s voting in the elections to the State Duma and St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly were no exception. Election monitors reported widespread violations, both during the voting period and after the polls closed. What’s more, St. Petersburg police carried out detentions and removed election monitors and poll workers from polling stations throughout the weekend. In the end, turnout in the elections was far below the national average, but United Russia’s candidates still managed to come out on top.
Much like in other cities across Russia, St. Petersburg’s first day of voting was marked by abnormally long lines at polling stations. According to Meduza’s sources, these were the result of the authorities pressuring civil servants across the country to vote before noon on the day the polls opened, Friday, September 17. Several sources working in the public sector also told the St. Petersburg-based news site Bumaga that they were asked — but not forced — to vote for the ruling United Russia party.
Election monitors reported violations such as carousel voting and ballot stuffing, and flagged instances of unusually widespread and rapid at-home voting. The nonprofit organization Observers of St. Petersburg calculated that election workers from precinct No. 130, who claimed to have visited 160 at-home voters over the course of five hours, must have spent less than two minutes with each voter. Later, several St. Petersburg residents showed up at their local polling stations only to be informed that their names were already crossed off the list of voters — allegedly, they had already cast their ballots. In particular, there were reports of carousel voting and ballot stuffing in favor of legislative assembly candidate Marina Lybaneva — the daughter of the St. Petersburg legislature’s chairman Vyacheslav Makarov.
Pro-government election monitors in St. Petersburg were instructed on how to write about the elections on social media, reported the Telegram channel Rotonda. They were told to report that everything was fine and to share “funny moments” — such as a cat coming into a polling station. To spice things up even further, “animateurs” made appearances — one voted while wearing a zebra costume, and another sang and danced at a polling station while dressed up as a ballot.
Attempts to report election violations sometimes ended in physical attacks. On the second day of voting, Yabloko party candidate Nikita Sorokin — who was running for the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly — reported the disappearance of hundreds of unmarked ballots at polling station No. 1459. He refused to leave the precinct and demanded that poll workers have representatives from the territorial election commission come examine the situation. In an attempt to forcibly remove him from the polling station, police officers put Sorokin — who is physically disabled — in a chokehold. Election officials later accused him of instigating a provocation; the police wrote him up for disobeying an officer. Then on Monday, September 20, an unidentified man pushed Sorokin down on the stairs leading up to the territorial election commission’s office.
St. Petersburg police arrested around a dozen members of precinct election commissions over the course of the voting period. At least two election commission members were detained on Saturday and at least nine others were detained after voting ended on Sunday. Election observer and barred electoral candidate Irina Fatyanova (the former head of Alexey Navalny’s St. Petersburg campaign office) reported that more than 30 election commission members were driven out of polling stations or detained after voting closed on Sunday. Many of them were representing opposition candidates. The police claimed that the detainees interfered with the vote count.
The Central Election Commission (CEC) didn’t publish the results of the elections in St. Petersburg until 3:00 a.m. local time on Monday. Observers reported dozens of violations at polling stations after voting ended, including the presence of unidentified individuals and safes containing ballots being left out of view of surveillance cameras during the night. The next morning, some of the safes showed signs of having been opened or swapped out. At four polling stations in the Kirovsky district, election observers found that the bottom panels on the safes were removable; only three of the polling stations agreed to seal the safes. And at some polling stations, ballots were taken away without reporting the results of the vote.
In the State Duma elections, Yabloko’s Boris Vishnevsky lost to United Russia’s candidate Sergey Solovyov. Vishnevsky’s “doppelgangers” — two spoiler candidates who changed their legal names and physical appearances shortly before the elections, in order to resemble the opposition politician — were not among the runners-up. On Monday morning, Vishnevsky was physically prevented from filing a formal complaint against the vote.
Total turnout for the State Duma elections in St. Petersburg was 37.4 percent; turnout for the elections to the legislative assembly was 35.5 percent. This is well below the countrywide average of 51.7 percent. Though the vote count isn’t officially complete, preliminary results show that six parties secured seats in the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly: United Russia, the Communist Party (KPRF), A Just Russia, New People, Yabloko, and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR).
Central Election Commission head Ella Pamfilova has criticized St. Petersburg for “dirty” elections more than once. And she was just as unhappy this time around. On the last day of voting, Pamfilova proclaimed that “the organizers of such messes must someday be brought to justice, punished […] so that they don’t dishonor a wonderful city, beloved by all Russians.” On Monday, the CEC head declared that there were grounds for opening a criminal case at one St. Petersburg polling station, and grounds for annulling the election results at six or seven other locations.
Translation by Eilish Hart