The United Russia merry-go-round

May 27, 2016

Even in its own primaries, United Russia had to cheat.

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Sergey Orlov

United Russia continues to fill Russians with a sense of exhaustion. Even the most loyal of voters is finding it difficult not to notice that the party’s mega-project is first and foremost meant to guarantee the stability of the government and the personal prosperity of the party corporation members, who only show any concern with what voters want when they have to i.e. during the election campaign. This has been the United Russia approach for years, which has lost them any real support they might have had.

So how does it look? Public sector employees are compelled (under threat of dismissal) to vote for United Russia. To bump up support even more, these same people are bussed round various polling stations, at each of which they vote as if for the first time; what is called the merry-go-round or “carousel” in Russia. The members of the Electoral Commission are in on the deceit, and the police pointedly pay no attention to any infringements. Finally, if everything else fails, the election results are simply falsified at every level – the voting results reports are doctored or ballot boxes are stuffed etc.

These methods worked without a hitch until 2011, when voters in Moscow and St Petersburg were outraged at the blatant falsifications in the Duma elections. In the run-up to the 2016 September Duma elections, to avert a new wave of protests from angry voters, United Russia – on paper at least – decided to become the chief advocate of free and fair elections. The federal primaries, where the party, with the assistance of the electorate, decide which of the 3000 applicants should be put forward as candidates for places in the Duma, were to be an important part of United Russia’s attempts to carve out a new image for itself. But independent observers (another ruling party initiative) identified deceit, falsification and use of official position to swing the vote. United Russia was clearly completely unable to move forward on any other form of fuel.

United Russia was clearly completely unable to move forward on any other form of fuel.

The United Russia primaries on 22 May were, according to the organisers, attended by close to 9.5% of Russian voters (approximately 10 million people). “This is, of course, a very high turnout – we expected it to be less,” said Sergei Neverov, secretary to the General Council of the party. However, political expect Alexander Kynev’s data show that initially United Russia expected more: “The unspoken expectation was for a turnout of 10-15% and the number of voting papers prepared would have been sufficient for 15%. If you go to the United Russia site, have a look at the news there and you will see forecasts of a turnout of up to 32% (this is the proportion of voters who work in the public sector) quoted a week before the primaries.”

As the legitimacy of any election depends on the turnout more than anything else, the battle with empty polling stations and half-empty ballot boxes was a very important end in itself for the United Russia people running the primaries. But people are unlikely to be enthused by voting when the result is pre-determined, so in two or three constituencies the turnout for United Russia was once more embellished using tried and tested methods. “They were relying on officials bussing people in, or on false reports when results, either in the early stages or after the count, were multiplied to reach the desired figure,” says Alexander Kynev, emphasising that “at the September elections everything is going to be a great deal worse and much less understated.”

In some regions even internal party auditions ended with feelings running seriously high. In St Petersburg, for example, the final turnout for the city was, according even to the organisers themselves, only 4.7% of the overall number of voters. The city party bosses reported that the figure was correct and that “there had been no serious infringements during the primaries,” but candidate Mariya Maksakova had a different view of the situation. “Friends and sympathisers, I am asking for a maximum re-post! At the polling station in School No. 385 in St Petersburg only one person came to vote between 8 and 9 in the morning, but there were 500 papers in the ballot box. The Electoral Commission is unable to offer an explanation.” Maksakova is not only a United Russia member of the State Duma and loyal party member, but a well-known opera singer from the Mariinsky Theatre. She found it difficult to believe that her party colleagues would have decided to play dirty tricks on her. “Perhaps it’s sabotage in the lower ranks. The reaction to my complaint will show me just how high up the order originated,” said Maksakova. She then recalled that her team had encountered very considerable aggression: “Firecrackers were thrown at my volunteers and my people were sitting in the van in a state of shock. My young (female) lawyer, who is of small build, was grabbed by the arms and legs and thrown out of the polling station. We were not shown the voting report and we were not given a copy. It was all quite cynical and hard-bitten. From the point of view of the legislation, the primaries are run worse than usual elections. No one can be held accountable in any circumstances.”

“From the point of view of the legislation, the primaries are run worse than usual elections.”

Grigorii Melkonyants, the co-chair of Golos, the monitoring organisation, had no doubts either about what was happening: “Bribery, bussing voters, carousels, forced participation, campaigning at the polling stations are all internal party, subculture matters. As it all takes place outside the official election, campaign legislation is not applicable here. But it stops being an internal party matter when officials become involved, exploiting their position and using public funds. We are also concerned for the upcoming elections, as they will be organised by the self-same people.”

When summing up the voting results, the United Russia management appeared to be talking about Switzerland: if there were any infringements, then they were isolated occurrences, because on the whole it was a triumph for unblemished democracy. Nikolai Pankov, for instance, a member of the United Russia Federal Organising Committee for the Preliminary Elections, who was following the primaries in the Samara region, and even touring round polling stations. “Everything depends on the will of the citizens, which is why it is so important that the voting should be fair and open. I can see that there’s no pressure from the administration and the citizens are freely expressing their opinion.”

Across Russia, United Russia put on a united front. Irina Yarovaya is an influential party member and author of many repressive laws. She was put forward for the primaries in the far-distant Kamchatka Region where she was observing local political decorum on 22 May: “The atmosphere at the preliminary United Russia voting in the Kamchatka Region was marvellous: there were no conflicts and each candidate had an observer at the polling station … Preliminary voting builds up its own kind of select Russian team, a United Russia team, which will have authority, trust, a good reputation, and support.”

However, that was not quite how the Kamchatka internet portal NoFormat.ru saw things: “Social media are full of messages from one of the candidates in the race for the Duma offering voters in the city of Yelizovo organised transport in minivans to polling stations. There are also a lot of messages about vote buying. Yesterday, for instance, in Theatre Square there were events to celebrate the Day of Slavic Literature and Culture. Some ‘campaigners’ were suggesting to people that for 300 roubles they should go to the nearest polling station and vote for one of the candidates. In other local regions, if voters provided a screenshot showing a “correctly” filled in ballot paper, they would be paid 500 roubles.”

To judge by the United Russia official site, the party is on the whole pleased with the results of the preliminary voting in the Moscow region, where the turnout was 9.6%. But an RBC journalist did not simply manage to track down the local “carousel-floaters” there – he actually infiltrated their ranks: “The woman from the Electoral Commission had a quick look at my passport cover and, seeing that there was a sticker there, nodded in satisfaction and put my passport information into the computer [the sticker which identifies carousel-floaters to the polling station personnel: the RBC journalist had stuck his own sticker on his passport, Ed]. Then she moved me on to her colleague, who wrote my passport details on a list and suggested I should put signatures in six different places. She didn’t notice that I was registered to vote in a north Moscow constituency: she handed me all the ballot papers, including for the election to the Moscow regional government.”

United Russia did what it could to show how seriously it viewed allegations of fraud.

United Russia did what it could to show how seriously it viewed allegations of fraud. “We shall now be checking all the information we have received (about exploitations of official positions), including in the media,” announced the high-ranking United Russia official Sergei Neverov when talking about the primaries. But the question is – which media outlets are the United Russia bosses going to be searching for revealing information? If they look at the evidence, which abounds in regional social media or conscientiously study Vedomosti, RBC or TV Rain, they will have to annul the primary results.  That won’t happen, of course. They will look through the complaints, then they will point out individual excesses at grassroots level, and one or two insignificant heads will roll – for show.

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