It's hard to say what's most impressive about Russia's latest round of regional and local elections -- the shameless rigging or the apathy of the voters. Either way, the October 14 polls sent an unmistakable message: Electoral democracy as we know it is dying a slow, painful death under President Vladimir Putin.
The votes occurred in part because Putin, seeking to calm widespread anti-corruption protests, restored gubernatorial elections he had ended years earlier. The results suggest the Kremlin retained ample control of the outcome. In the five regions that could have chosen new governors on Oct. 14, nothing actually changed. Five incumbents, all appointees of the ruling United Russia party, won in landslides. None received less than 64 percent of the vote.
United Russia also triumphed in a vast array of mayoral and local council elections, with only a few insignificant exceptions, such as the Siberian gold town of Bodaibo. One of the most-watched races was in the town of Khimki near Moscow, where well-known green activist Yevgenia Chirikova ran against a United Russia incumbent. The campaign was noisy and heavily reported both in traditional media and on social networks. Chirikova won only 21 percent of the vote to the incumbent's 44 percent.
Another of Putin's concessions to protesters -- he made it easier to register a new party -- proved disappointing. Vladimir Ryzhkov, whose Republican Party had long been denied registration, jumped at the chance and entered his party in elections to a few local legislatures. The result: The party just barely cleared the 5 percent entry barrier in the Siberian city of Barnaul, winning one of 35 seats. “I feel like I have been robbed and the thief is standing next to me grinning insolently," Ryzhkov told the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets.
Activists throughout the country reported fraud. Some posted videos of ballot-box stuffing. Election observers fought unsuccessfully to establish at least a semblance of fairness. After describing the transgressions he witnessed at polling stations in the Volga river republic of Tatarstan, blogger Dmitri Aleshkovsky wrote that the election "horrified" him. "This horror comes from the realization that what is going on throughout the country and in Tatarstan is our own fault," he wrote. "Each who thinks one person or even a thousand cannot change anything, each who is scared that it might get worse and so does not work to change things for the better.”
As in previous elections, authorities dismissed reports of fraud as unsubstantiated. In a meeting with Vladimir Churov, head of the Central Election Commission, Putin calmly claimed victorу. “The election results come as no surprise to me,” he said, according to the RIA Novosti news service. “I believe this is another confirmation of the voters' intent to support the existing institutions of power and the development of Russia's statehood. I am grateful to voters for that.”
Perhaps sensing that the outcome had been decided in advance, Russians largely stayed away from the polls. Turnout for the gubernatorial elections ranged from 37 percent in the Amur region bordering China to 47 percent in the southwestern province of Bryansk. Even the widely publicized Chirikova race in Khimki attracted only 29 percent of local residents.
“I could have said this was another election stolen from the people, but I won't,” wrote blogger Viktor Troinov. “The people have stolen this election from themselves. Such a turnout is a disgrace and an incredible help to fraudsters.” Others recalled a famous quote commonly attributed to Joseph Stalin: “It's not the people who vote that count, it's those who count the vote.”
One effort to make the people's voice heard, though, did achieve some early success. The opposition movement has been running an innovative online primary election to choose its leaders. Some 211 people have registered as candidates for a 45-member quasi-parliament called the coordinating council, and the vote will be held Oct. 20 and 21. Contenders have engaged in open debates on the online TV channel Dozhd. Voters can check their political views against the candidates' using a computer program called Political Compass. As of this writing, more than 115,000 people had registered to vote.
If Putin were interested, the voting mechanism could be further developed to eliminate fraud and hold fair nationwide elections. He is not, so his opponents view the exercise as an investment in the future. They would rather build a working model of democracy than take part in what passes for it in Putin's system.
“The only fair election going on in Russia now is the election to the opposition's coordinating council," Alexei Navalny, probably the most popular leader of the past year's protests, wrote on his blog.
“Some say the authorities have allowed parties, so we should set them up or take part in elections,” Alexander Vinokurov, a millionaire who has invested in Dozhd and is running for the coordinating council, told The New Times. “But it's laughable […]. We are, like, on different subway stations with these people going in different directions.”
(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow and Kiev correspondent for World View. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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