After months of tension, Russia’s much anticipated municipal and regional elections have ended. The elections, which sparked the largest protests Russia has seen since 2012, became a point of contention over the summer, when election officials banned opposition candidates from running for the Moscow city council. The government’s heavy-handed action against opposition candidates transformed the municipal elections for a “largely powerless body” into a contest over the future of Russian democracy. Weeks of protests and the accompanying government crackdown during “Moscow’s Summer of Discontent” made the election a bellwether of the opposition’s strength and a referendum on United Russia’s popularity.
It also afforded an opportunity to examine the contours of Russia’s managed democracy. The government’s actions in the run up to the election revealed the Kremlin’s determination to maintain only the barest pretense of democracy. As candidate Dariya Besedina observed, “these weren’t real elections.” Instead of an open election, the government barred opposition candidates from participating after internal polling reportedly showed liberals “poised to win at least nine seats.” Blocking independent candidates from running demonstrated the unwillingness of the regime to provide the opposition a platform within the government, even in a relatively unimportant body.
This firm resistance to even modest opposition lends credence to the claim of the opposition’s Lyubov Sobol that the municipal elections were “a funeral for even the illusion of democracy.” The government’s attempt to preserve power by eliminating legitimate competition has troubling implications. The Kremlin’s actions to silence dissent, even in a municipal election, reveal that the “regime rules by a political monopoly,” which must eliminate competition “on every level.”
Yet despite the Kremlin’s efforts, the opposition managed to achieve some level of success in the recent election. United Russia, the ruling party, lost almost a third of the seats in the municipal election, with even United Russia’s Moscow leader, Andrei Metelsky, losing his seat. The results were in part due to Alexei Navalny’s “smart vote” strategy, which urged voters to defeat party backed candidates by choosing to vote for the candidate most likely to succeed. As Navalny noted on twitter, 20 of the candidates backed by smart vote won.
However, the opposition’s success is qualified. The defeat of United Russia backed candidates does not unambiguously signal the rise of the opposition. All the “opposition” candidates were permitted to run by the government, and they aren’t necessarily “natural allies” of the pro-democracy opposition, since several are “closely aligned to the Kremlin.”
Denied a national platform, the opposition’s focus on local elections was a clever change in tactics. Such a shift is “good because it helps the opposition broaden its reach and debunks the regime’s portrait of the opposition as spoiled Muscovites.” However, there is little indication that the opposition’s limited victory is a sign of a broadening national opposition movement. Outside of Moscow, races for regional governors largely witnessed Kremlin backed candidates winning with super majorities. Even in cosmopolitan Saint Petersburg, Alexander Beglov, the Kremlin backed “gaffe machine,” won his election.
While the election results from outside the capital paint a bleak picture for the future success of the opposition, even its nominal success in Moscow revealed potential fractures and weaknesses within the movement. Despite its success, the smart voting campaign was a point of contention in the opposition. Critics questioned the ethics of such tactics and declared the effort “self-defeating.” Perhaps due to this, voter turnout was low. Despite the highly contentious nature of the election, only 21.77 percent of Muscovites voted―participation comparable to the pedestrian 2014 municipal elections.
Overall, the results of the election cast doubt on the ability of the opposition to actualize change through elections. Smart voting managed to deny party backed candidates seats in Moscow, but by electing “systemic opposition” candidates the opposition expressed its discontent without gaining a foothold within the government. Despite mobilizing the largest protests in years, it was unsuccessful in channeling this discontent into a strong referendum against the regime given the low voter turnout. With the election over, it is unlikely the unrest it incited will be sustained.
Moreover, it is apparent the regime is determined to deny the possibility of enacting change. If anything, the recent elections have reinforced its belief “the only way it can win is by cheating and using force.” Indeed, the recently prototyped new electronic voting system may allow the Kremlin to perpetrate ballot fraud without having to engage in blatant ballot stuffing. And so, for the foreseeable future, elections are unlikely to restore true democracy to Russia.