Regional elections: parties encounter an "electoral anomaly"

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This autumn’s combined voting day in Russia was Sunday, October 12. The United Russia party won regional legislature elections in five regions. The election performance of the other three parties represented in the federal parliament improved in all regions except Chechnya and the Kemerovo region, which observers described as “anomalous.”

Regional legislature elections were held in Chechnya, the Trans-Baikal territory, the Irkutsk region, the Kemerovo region, and the Sakhalin region. Mayoral elections were held in four regional capitals: Vologda, Magadan, Stavropol, and Khabarovsk. There were also a number of minor municipal elections and by-elections.

Here and there, election organizers and participants ran up against the force of nature: Nezavisimaya Gazeta reports that Sakhalin and the Magadan region were blanketed by snowstorms, while the earthquake in Chechnya destroyed three polling stations.

According to the Gazeta newspaper, the most remote region to hold elections on October 12 – the Sakhalin region – also showed the strongest voter apathy: turnout was only 29%. The situation was noticeably better in the Trans-Baikal territory, with voter turnout at 41.8%. The Irkutsk region’s result was quite representative: when polls closed at 8 p.m. local time, turnout stood at 61.95%.

Chechnya resolved to break political activity records this time. Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov promised that voter turnout should be all of 100%, or even more.

The Kommersant newspaper reports that United Russia took first place everywhere, as expected, although its results were lower than in the Duma elections last December.

According to preliminary figures, United Russia’s weakest performance was in the Irkutsk region (around 50% of the vote, compared to 58.5% in the Duma elections). United Russia’s results dropped by 10% in the Sakhalin region and the Trans-Baikal territory, where it got around 54% of the vote. United Russia managed to do better in the Kemerovo region and Chechnya, with an absolute majority of the vote (over 80%).

In the Kemerovo region, United Russia will hold 35 out of 36 seats in the regional legislature. The thirty-sixth lawmaker is a Just Russia candidate; Just Russia failed to cross the 7% threshold, and the only reason its candidate got a seat is because regional laws forbid a one-party legislature. Thus, as Lenta.ru explains, the runner-up party was given one seat.

Alexander Kynev, head of the Information Policy Foundation, told Kommersant: “Despite extreme efforts by the state, we have seen United Russia’s results drop by an average of 9% compared to last year’s Duma elections, along with an obvious rise in voting for the Communist Party and Just Russia.” Kynev noted that this applies to the elections in the Trans-Baikal territory, the Sakhalin region, and the Irkutsk region. He described the voting results in Chechnya and the Kemerovo region as an “electoral anomaly,” attributing them to “harsh authoritarian regimes and minimal oversight opportunities” in the elections. According to Kynev, United Russia’s results dropped because voters are tired of “continual excesses” in using administrative resources; and United Russia’s share of the vote is “directly proportional to economic indicators.”

In Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Central Electoral Commission (CEC) member Elena Dubrovina says that United Russia’s relatively low results were due to the absence of an ideological component in regional elections: “There is none at all at the municipal level. The lower the level of elections, the more often people base their votes on the actual state of affairs in their regions. If United Russia’s top candidate is a regional leader who has been in power for years, but road-building promises have not been kept, people won’t vote for him.”

Another reason for United Russia’s lower popularity is that Russian citizens are worried about the potential impact of the crisis. Yevgeny Minchenko, general director of the International Institute of Political Analysis, says: “The crisis hasn’t fully reached us yet, but people are already expecting crisis conditions, so support for United Russia has dropped to some extent.”

But United Russia itself maintains that its latest results should be compared to the previous regional elections, not the Duma elections. Vyacheslav Volodin, United Russia’s general council presidium secretary, told Kommersant: “In the Duma elections, our candidate list was headed by Vladimir Putin – but this time we were supposed to show whether we are worthy of our leader.”

Volodin cited data from the last regional election cycle, showing that United Russia’s performance improved in the Sakhalin region (it got only 17.2% of the vote in the last regional legislature elections), in the Irkutsk region (30.19% in the last elections), and in the Chita region (35.6% in the last elections).

Kommersant reports that the Communist Party (CPRF) and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) did slightly better on October 12 compared to their Duma election results last December. The CPRF got its best result (29.8% of the vote) in the Sakhalin region: almost double its result in the Duma elections. The CPRF got 13% in the Trans-Baikal territory and the Irkutsk region, but only 4% in the Kemerovo region (compared to 7% in December 2007) and 0.33% in Chechnya. The LDPR was the runner-up in the Irkutsk region with 16% of the vote (compared to 11.5% in December 2007).

Experts say that the CPRF’s poor performance in Chechnya and the Kemerovo region was not entirely due to the peculiarities of the electoral situation in Chechnya and the CPRF’s conflict with Kemerovo Governor Aman Tuleyev (the former Communist leader, now heading United Russia’s candidate list, made the CPRF the chief target of his criticism). The problem is also that the CPRF “cannot withstand” administrative resources.

Dmitri Badovsky, deputy director of the Social Systems Research Institute, told Gazeta.ru: “The CPRF isn’t getting enough votes to make it into some regional parliaments. That in itself is a signal. On the other hand, neither of the regions where the CPRF failed are entirely typical. In Chechnya, which has an extremely unusual electoral situation due to the Kadyrov factor, the CPRF’s positions have never been strong. The failure in Kemerovo is the price paid for the CPRF leadership’s conflict with Tuleyev. So this is a signal, of course, indicating that the CPRF cannot withstand the use of administrative resources. It has no resources of its own to counter that.”

Sergei Mikheyev, vice president of the Political Techniques Center, told Vremya Novostei: “The Communists have a strong party nucleus – in effect, this is the one and only real political party in Russia – and if they were ‘let loose’ from the administrative resources standpoint, they could get up to 30% of the vote in regional elections and 25% in federal elections. But the CPRF’s problem is how to win new voters. Besides, there are the ideology questions. People are repelled by associations with the USSR. Public demand for social-conservative and leftist-patriotic approaches is higher, but the Communists are incapable of presenting such a hybrid.”

The LDPR is displeased with the election results. As Vladimir Zhirinovsky said yesterday, only the Irkutsk region’s results gave an accurate picture of the party’s support level. According to Zhirinovsky, the leaders of the Kemerovo region and Chechnya clearly “went too far” in their desire to please the Kremlin: the LDPR’s results in the Kemerovo region were cut by two-thirds, and Chechnya was “beyond belief.” Igor Lebedev, head of the LDPR Duma faction, said that the most “honest” election on October 12 was for the municipal legislature of Vyshnii Volochek, where the LDPR finished first, 2% ahead of United Russia.

The experts approached by Nezavisimaya Gazeta point out that Just Russia performed well, at the expense of the CPRF – and even at United Russia’s expense, to some extent. Carnegie Moscow Center analyst Nikolai Petrov says: “Just Russia used to be promoted as a reserve option, shadowing he CPRF. So if the crisis had happened sooner, and criticism of United Russia had started to take a toll, people could have been switched over from United Russia to Just Russia as the reserve Kremlin party.”

Petrov notes that Just Russia’s success is easily explained: “They had to get some sort of compensation, after all. They already have a problem because Just Russia was effectively excluded from the presidential election campaign, even though it was one of the parties that nominated Dmitri Medvedev. And now they have duly been allowed to cross the threshold in the regional elections.”

Political analyst Alexander Kynev told Radio Liberty that Just Russia’s second place in Chechnya and the Kemerovo region was the result of a Kremlin directive: “Since Russian law requires a legislature to have at least two parties, the authorities in remarkable regions like Chechnya and Kemerovo decided that the second party should be Just Russia. Since these two regions are quite different from each other, this seems to be an instruction issued at some higher level.”

The Gazeta newspaper reports that only one party not represented in the federal parliament managed to cross the threshold in a regional election: the Agrarian Party got 6.89% of the vote in the Trans-Baikal territory, giving it one seat.

But the Agrarian Party’s result in the elections of 2004, in what was then called the Chita region, was double that figure: 12.3%, according to Vremya Novostei.

Kommersant notes that the Agrarian Party decided on October 10 to merge with United Russia.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta draws attention to another important point about the October 12 elections: the right-wing liberal parties didn’t participate at all. However, experts say that the new bloc made up of the Union of Right Forces (SPS), Civil Force, and the Democratic Party of Russia is being readied for a far more important battle. There is a real possibility that protest moods in Russian society, due to the deteriorating socio-economic situation, could increase demand for the new right-wing bloc substantially – in time for the next round of elections. While all is calm on the left wing, as this October’s results demonstrate, the right wing presents a picture of complete desolation – with the risk of spontaneous developments, unfavorable for the Kremlin.

According to Lenta.ru, the most important elections at the municipal level were the mayoral elections in four regional capitals. United Russia’s incumbents were re-elected with overwhelming majorities in three of these cities: Magadan Mayor Vladimir Pechenyi with 85.9% of the vote, Khabarovsk Mayor Alexander Sokolov with 79.89%, and Nikolai Paltsev in Stavropol – no longer acting mayor, having defeated the CPRF candidate by 73% to 15%.

United Russia’s candidate won in Vologda as well, but Yevgeny Shulepov’s results were more modest: around 56% of the vote, closely followed by the CPRF and LDPR candidates who finished second and third.

The only shock defeat for United Russia happened in the mayoral election of Nizhny Tagil (Sverdlovsk region). Alexei Chekanov, a regional lawmaker officially nominated by United Russia, lost to independent candidate Valentina Isayeva (deputy speaker of the municipal legislature). Then again, Isayeva is also a United Russia member.

A great many by-elections for regional parliaments take place in various regions of Russia. This week, media attention focused on Roman Abramovich, former governor of Chukotka. He was elected to the Chukotka parliament as a rank-and-file lawmaker, with 96.9% of the vote. Vremya Novostei reports that the Chukotka parliament will vote on making Abramovich its speaker when it meets on October 17.

Abramovich’s latest election result breaks his own popularity records, says Gazeta.ru. He got 59.78% of the vote in the Duma elections of December 1999, and was elected governor of Chukotka in 2000 with 90.61% of the vote. That’s more than Vladimir Putin scored in Chukotka in the presidential election of 2004 (87.24%). It’s also more than Dmitri Medvedev got in Chukotka in March 2008 (88.4%).

Analysts say that a seat in the regional parliament will make the billionaire maintain his “tax residence” in Chukotka, thus contributing to the regional budget. But analysts also consider Abramovich’s new status slightly bizarre; as Vremya Novostei reports, there is even a theory that some sort of sentimental feelings are preventing him from leaving Chukotka.

The CEC told Kommersant that the March 2009 round of regional elections will see nine regions voting for their parliaments: Tatarstan, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachaevo-Cherkesia, Khakasia, the Arkhangelsk region, the Volgograd region, the Vladimir region, the Bryansk region, and the Nenets autonomous district.

The next combined voting day is March 1, 2009.

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