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Russian Duma elections. How promising is the smart voting strategy this time?

This month, United Russia hopes to retain its absolute majority in the State Duma during elections held between September 17th and 19th. Once again, the opposition is trying to make things difficult for Vladimir Putin and his allies by using a “smart voting” strategy. This strategy may have its problems, but it has already caused some headaches for the Kremlin.

September 9, 2021 - Gijs Willem Freriks - Analysis

Russian President Vladimir Putin during the 20th Congress of the United Russia party. Photo: Website of the President of Russian Federation (CC) http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/66445/photos

On September 17th Russia’s polling stations will open and the electorate will vote to decide who will represent them in the State Duma, the parliament’s lower chamber, and in 39 regional parliaments. At the same time, nine regional governors will also be elected. For the establishment United Russia (UR) party the stakes are high this year. Putin’s party is determined to preserve its constitutional majority in the State Duma at all costs. Currently, UR holds 335 of the chamber’s 450 seats. According to Russian media, the Putin administration is counting on UR winning 45 per cent of the vote on the party lists in an expected turnout of 45 per cent.

This all seems easier said than done. Public enthusiasm for UR has been declining for years and a recent poll by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) revealed that support has dropped to a national average of 27.2 per cent. United Russia has not been this unpopular for 13 years. Some explanations for this change include economic stagnation, high inflation, broken promises, the effects of COVID-19, environmental disasters and corruption. In Moscow, a leaked internal poll showed that 55 per cent of voters plan to support opposition candidates. This has naturally worried the political elite of the party.

The key advantage for the opposition is once again the smart voting strategy, which is based on the platform of the same name developed by Alexei Navalny and his team in 2016. This strategy calls on voters to support candidates who are not affiliated with United Russia in an attempt to coordinate electoral support against the group’s hold on power. It should be noted that Navalny already called on the population to “vote for anyone but United Russia” back in 2011. However, there was less branding and coordination involved in that campaign. The strategy has already generated several victories in regional elections across Russia and this was best seen during the 2019 Moscow local Duma elections. Overall, 20 of the 45 Moscow City Duma seats went to candidates promoted as part of the campaign. The Communist party, which took 13 seats, proved to be the greatest beneficiary of tactical voting.

Despite this, the smart voting strategy also has opponents among the opposition. Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation has traditionally determined which opposition candidates to support based on opinion polls and its own estimates but has remained tight-lipped about its methodology. Voters might subsequently consider this to be a transparency issue and therefore decide to vote for a deputy who they personally support. The data offered by Navalny and his supporters simply shows who is best placed to compete with the candidate from the ruling party. As a result, the system does not discriminate against any opposition candidates, be they hardcore Navalny supporters, communists or nationalists from the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. At the same time, this “impartiality” can be viewed as a major flaw in the smart voting system.

After all, is it really worth it to support a candidate from a party you despise, or from a party that is clearly part of the so-called “systemic opposition”? This is precisely the criticism offered by figures such as Grigori Yavlinsky, former presidential candidate for the Yabloko party. According to Yavlinsky, a “smart vote” is therefore a “stupid vote”: “With it, you support different factions of UR … You choose the strongest of the Bolsheviks, of the Stalinists, of the racists, of the fascists”. His party colleague, leader Nikolay Rybakov, also stated that “I don’t want to choose other crooks and thieves instead of the usual crooks and thieves”.

This sense of ambivalence is recognised by Navalny’s supporters themselves. For instance, Mikhail Khodorkovsky wrote on Twitter that people should support “smart voting” as Russia faced a simple choice between supporting Putin and his allies or providing Navalny with moral support. However, Khodorkovsky also added that “I don’t want smart-voting to support candidates who are in favour of Putin’s fifth term”. Due to this, it will be interesting to see how much support the candidates parachuted in by the opposition will receive. After all, disagreement over selection divides the opposition and this will only limit the effectiveness of smart voting. It should be noted, however, that some hardcore Navalny supporters do not care at all about who replaces the ruling party candidate. Talking to Kommersant, Professor Vladimir Gelman discussed this view, stating that “The idea that there should be a change of power is higher in the hierarchy than who exactly should change this power.”

Meanwhile, the political elite did just about everything it could to make any effective opposition impossible. Of course, Navalny, the main ideologue behind the “smart voting” strategy with a great amount of media influence, has been sidelined following his poisoning and subsequent imprisonment. Key opposition figure Lyubov Sobol was also convicted of violating COVID-19 rules and the country’s electoral commission even ruled that the signatures of various opposition candidates were fake. Navalny’s foundation was finally declared an “extremist organisation” and a western puppet bent on chaos in June. At the same time, the government has challenged the smart voting app by developing its own (smart vote) that is designed to encourage undecided voters to support UR candidates. In addition, the Kremlin is trying to help candidates who are supposedly independent by providing them with administrative resources. In order to further confuse the voting public, these candidates sometimes even have the same names as popular opposition figures.

The Kremlin’s extensive toolbox of subversive measures has not only made it difficult for opposition candidates to run for office, they have also discouraged politicians from entering the political race altogether. This is supported by a report released by the independent Golos movement, which showed that substantially fewer politicians are willing to run for office compared to 2016. Many have refused to get involved as the risks simply outweigh the benefits. As Golos co-chair Stanislav Andreychuk has stated, “the bonuses of nomination are not clear and the risks are”. After all, it would not be the first time that opposition candidates encounter law enforcement agencies before, during or after their campaign and face charges. In this sense, the campaign of suppression has been successful. Potential opposition candidates are dropping out and this has subsequently left voters with fewer alternatives.

Herein also lies the danger that voters will see the election as meaningless and stay home during the elections. According to VTsIOM, only 22 per cent of Russians plan to vote. This is compared to 55 per cent in 2004. Of course, such a prediction is bad news for the opposition. “The main enemy of ‘smart voting’ is the ‘sofa voter’”, declared political scientist Vladimir Gelman on his Facebook page in August 2019. “If you disagree with the actions of the authorities, but you do nothing to interfere, you will have to blame yourself for the continuation of these actions.”

If fewer people come to the (online) ballot box, it will only be to the advantage of United Russia. Indeed, a recent poll shows that support for UR among committed voters at 42 per cent, much higher than the average of 27 per cent. However, this level is possibly not high enough to win the 220 districts needed to achieve a majority without any manipulation or fraud.

As explained earlier, the ruling party is hoping for an electoral turnout of around 45 per cent. This percentage would apparently provide the elections with sufficient legitimacy. The only question is who does the government hope to convince that the vote is legitimate? Due to government repressions, the elections will not be considered valid by the average voter. The Kremlin needs just enough people to sit back and accept the election results in order to prevent another scenario like that seen on Bolotnaya Square between 2011 and 2013. On the other hand, by producing a reasonable voter turnout, the government will be able to present itself as legitimate to the elite. It is a way for the Putin administration to demonstrate to the same elite that things are under control and that Putin is still their most suitable patron.

The upcoming legislative elections are not yet a done deal. The expected low voter turnout and a divided and demobilised opposition are playing into the Kremlin’s hands. However, the “smart voting” strategy remains a tried and tested formula. As a result of the first-past-the-post system in single-member districts, United Russia won 90 per cent of these mandates while gaining only about 50 per cent of the vote. But if it goes the other way in September, the Kremlin may face serious problems.

Gijs Willem Freriks is a Dutch journalist with an MA degree in Russian & Eurasian Studies from the European University in St. Petersburg.

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