Historic Win for Democrats in St Petersburg Elections

September 13, 2019
2019 May Day demonstration against United Russia. Banner reads: Petersburg against United Russia

On Sunday, voters from Briansk to Buriatia went to the ballot to elect governors, city councillors and municipal deputies. Perhaps the most shocking result from election day was not the outcome but the low turnout: only one out of every five voters took part in the Moscow city duma elections. In the more far-flung regions of the country the turnout was also poor. The median turnout for the gubernatorial elections, which took place in 16 regions, was a mere 45%.

Despite the overwhelming sense of indifference expressed by the Russian electorate towards these sham elections, there are some more positive results worthy of discussion. In St Petersburg around 400 independent municipal deputies were elected to district councils. For Russia’s second biggest city this is perhaps the largest democratic mandate acquired by non-systemic opposition since President Putin came to power. 140 of these candidates were provided logistic and legal support by the United Democrats project. The initiative also helped over 200 municipal deputies get elected in the Moscow municipal elections in September 2017.

What is more, this result seems more impressive if one also considers the dirty and at times unlawful tactics employed by security forces and authorities to limit the success of non-Kremlin candidates.

For example, one hopeful candidate, Pavel Chuprunov, spent six days queuing to submit his candidates registration documents. He found that so-called ‘fake candidates’ were being paid to queue day and night to prevent legitimate candidates from registering. Having successfully registered, Pavel was then removed from the ballot by his local electoral commission. Pavel acquired a court ruling to force the commission to reinstate him as a candidate, but to no avail. Similarly, Andrei Pivovarov was struck off the candidate list at the last minute, despite having already fought (and won) a court case to keep his name on the ballot.

Difficulties for democratic candidates also arose during the vote counting. There were instances of vote tallies being manipulated to ensure that Kremlin-backed candidates won seats on municipal councils. One independent candidate miraculously lost 100 votes, moving him down from first to sixth place, which lost him his seat and gave the Kremlin’s United Russia control over the council.

The St Petersburg electoral commission has confirmed that there will be some recounts in disputed districts. In response to this announcement, one United Democrats coordinator, Anastasia Burakova, confirmed, “We should still be able to win back a few more seats”. In any case, considering all of the above, the work achieved so far by the United Democrats and other democratic forces is certainly a reason to remain positive.

Though limited in their powers, municipal deputies play an important role in resolving local issues and are responsible for awarding small government contracts. Indeed, this latter responsibility has provided adequate opportunity for self-enrichment to those deputies ready to bend the procurement protocols to favour family members or companies willing to pay bribes. Therefore, a new generation of municipal deputies, who sought election with the genuine conviction of serving – not stealing from – their local communities, may restore people’s faith in local politics

Crucially, there are now enough democratic deputies to ensure that future independent gubernatorial candidates will have a chance of passing the so-called municipal filter. This sly political tool requires that potential candidates receive support from around 15% of municipal deputies in order to stand in elections.

It would be farfetched to suggest that the Petersburg elections mark a radical change in Russian domestic politics, but they certainly point towards something more revolutionary appearing on the horizon.