Why the Russian Local Elections Matter

July 11, 2019

Across Russia the second Sunday of September is known as ‘Single Voting Day’. On this day, elections are held across Russia to determine representatives for various positions for each level of Russian government.

Simply put, there are three electoral levels: the federal, the regional and the local. The federal level decides who will be the president and who shall sit in the Federal Duma. The regional decides the state level parliaments, governors and mayors of 85 federal subjects. At these higher levels, Russian elections are typically more political performances, than a democratic opportunity for Russian citizens. The Kremlin’s grip on these elections is simply too strong for them to allow any unwanted candidates to slip through the net. To maintain its stranglehold, Putin’s regime will go to such lengths as ballot stuffing, as seen in the 2018 presidential elections, to the outright cancelling of elections that do not go to plan like in the 2018 gubernatorial election in Khakassia.

This has led many to believe that political engagement in Russia is a pointless endeavour. However, setting aside these more glamorous positions, there have been some glimmers of hope for Russian democracy found at the local level of the political system: in the elections for municipal councils. These councils are tasked with the day to day running of single districts. These are smaller administrative divisions found in every federal subject in Russia. In Moscow alone there are 125 such districts, all of which have their own municipal council.

In recent times, the elections for these councils have provided Russians who participate in them, either as candidates or as voters, with a more realistic opportunity to drive some political change within their communities. In the last Moscow municipal elections in 2017 a liberal coalition led by Kremlin-critic Dmitry Gudkov won 250 of 1502 seats available. Despite the majority of the seats still going to Putin’s party, United Russia, those involved with this initiative gained a majority in over a dozen districts and achieved the third highest amount of votes overall.

These small victories can have larger significance as incumbents, once in office, are provided with powers that enable them to affect the wider political landscape. If similar results occur in municipal elections across Russia this September, then we could eventually see the influence of independent voices increase at a regional or even federal level of Russian politics.

One way municipal deputies can have an influence concerns a key mechanism of Kremlin control over elections; the monopolisation of the registration process. Typically, the problem is not that independents lose an election to Kremlin-certified candidates, it is that they cannot even register for the election in the first place. Running for a position at any level of Russian politics involves meticulously navigating a minefield of procedure and paperwork, deliberately created with a view to arbitrarily disqualify potential candidates. The authorities knowingly use this process as a mechanism with which they can restrict the field of candidates and dismiss politically viable opposition before they can even begin to campaign.

For those at the gubernatorial and regional level, part of their registration involves collecting a certain amount of signatures from the lower-level municipal deputies, this is commonly known as the ‘municipal filter’. Potential candidates must collect 5-10% of their deputy’s signatures to show that they have a certain level of endorsement and approval. Currently, Putin’s United Russia has majorities in the municipal councils spanning Russia. Despite the relative success of the 2017 elections, Moscow still saw United Russia claim 77% of the mandates. Independent candidates received only 7.2 %. This means that established councillors can heavily control who is given their endorsement to run for office. Getting more independent municipal candidates in the councils, then, could mean there is greater support within the political establishment for independent candidates in next year’s gubernatorial elections.

Along with these signatures, councillors also influence the appointments for the electoral commissions, those who oversee candidate registration and vote counting. These bodies are appointed by municipal deputies, who choose from several lists of candidates. Each political party represented in the Federal Duma can provide a list; at least half of the commission’s members must have been nominated by these parties. The regional electoral commission also makes nominations, as do members of the public. Electoral commissions often illegitimately turn potential candidates away and have previously instigated ballot stuffing and carousel voting during elections. Given that United Russia dominates the municipal as well as the executive bodies it has been able to appoint favourable commissioners to hundreds of electoral commissions. Again, by increasing the amount of opposition councillors involved in the appointment process, it is possible to weaken the stranglehold that the current establishment has over Russian politics.

In terms of effecting change themselves, these councillors are limited to their local districts. However, within these districts they do possess powers to make a difference. Deputies are granted access to information. This can be especially important as local councillors are tasked with the role of allocating the local budget, offering plenty of opportunity for corruption to become rampant. Government money is funneled through the hands of corrupt local officials resulting in the embezzlement and the theft of untold amounts of roubles; roubles that could have been directed towards more important community projects. Once in office, independent deputies can investigate these issues largely kept hidden by established, pro-Kremlin officials.

With this information, municipal councillors can then use their position to break a culture of compliance within their local councils. They gain a higher platform from which they can heckle, question and pressure the established authorities and expose their wrong doings. Their voice becomes louder and officials can no longer so easily ignore their demands for answers. They are also able to offer an official ear to local citizens. They can also offer an ongoing dialogue in pursuit of resolving issues of local corruption. In comparison to the power of an activist, becoming a deputy offers deeper avenues through which local issues can be pursued.

Finally, an independent candidate’s victory in a Russian election, at the local, regional or federal level, can provide a signal of hope that Russian politics is not entirely impenetrable. This can act as a message to a generation of Russians that political involvement and the pursuit of positive change are achievable in their country. This can be a force against one of the strongest weapons in the Kremlin’s arsenal: the idea that nothing will ever change. Small victories at these lower levels can go some way towards convincing disheartened people in Russia that this will not always be the case.

No one is under any illusions about how difficult the task of getting elected is. To be an independent candidate in Russian politics, even at the municipal level, you face an arduous registration process. Those in power use a long list of tricks to ensure that the system is structured to work against opposition involvement. For example, Alexander Solovyev is running for a regional office in Moscow. For his registration, he had to collect 7,000 hand-written signatures from various neighborhoods in his electoral district. Though the required number of signatures is only around 5,500, electoral commissioners pride themselves in finding reasons to reject signatures. Thus, Alexander felt it necessary to give himself a 10% margin. Other techniques were experienced by Pavel Chuprunov who, after queuing for three days to register in the St Petersburg municipal elections, discovered that his fellow ‘candidates’ were in fact actors paid to prevent him from ever being able to make it into the office to register.

Alexander Solovyev submitting his 5,500 signatures to the electoral commission in Moscow.

There is only one reason why the Kremlin goes to such lengths to prevent a free and fair elections. Those in power know that if they allowed the Russian people to decide for themselves, then they would stand a very real chance of suffering a massive defeat in districts and towns across Russia. As the 2017 Moscow elections show, there are chinks in the armour. Despite the Kremlin’s best efforts, an example was set within the Russian capital that participation is possible. This offers a viable avenue through which Russian citizens can pursue change.

It is the manner of this avenue that provides the biggest cause for hope. Russian politics is structured to allow those in positions of power to have an influence on who is given this privilege in the future. The more people that find a way onto their local councils, the more political support needed by future candidates can be provided; and the more reform of the corrupt political system can take place. This process has the chance to gather momentum and significantly weaken the Kremlin’s grip on Russian politics. In Russia there exists at least a skeleton of a political infrastructure that can enable democratic change to occur.