The results of last week’s election to the lower house of the Russian parliament, the State Duma, are now in. The big winners? The ruling United Russia party (UR) which won 50% of the vote. Second was the Communist Party of the Russian Federation at 19%; next at 7.5% was Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) as well as A Just Russia – For Truth; and last to win a batch a seats was a new formation, New People, which got just over 5%. Nine other parties collected 12% between them but failed to get over the 5% needed to get seats according to the party list system.
I have analyzed the results in an article for RT (here) As I say, both UR, whose result was 5% down compared with the last election in 2016, and the Communists, whose vote was about 6% up, have reason to be happy. UR will win close to 320 seats out of the 450 available, a majority of over two-thirds. Meanwhile, the CPRF has enjoyed its best election for 20 years, consolidating its position as Russia’s main opposition. When Russians are dissatisfied with their rulers, the Communists are their first choice for an alternative. It’s a sobering thought for those in the West who imagine that a post-Putin Russia will be all love and cuddles.
There’s only so much that one can put in a 1,000 word article, so I thought I should develop some points further here.
1. Fraud. UR’s 50% is well above predictions. Pre-election polls had the party pegged at about 35% of decided, definite voters. In the past, undecideds have tended to gravitate towards UR or have just not voted at all, so it was to be expected that UR would get more than the 35% polled. 40% would not have been unreasonable. The state polling company VTsIOM was predicting 45%. But 50% is way beyond expectations. Unsurprisingly, some people consider the result more than a little fishy.
Of course, some were going to shout fraud whatever happened. But UR’s showing certainly provides grounds for suspicion. The Central Electoral Commission cancelled results from several polling stations after cameras spotted ballot stuffing. Who knows how many others got away with it.
The main target at this moment in time is the system of electronic voting. For the first time, Russians had the option of voting in person in the old fashion way with pen and paper, or online. Even before the election, critics were saying that the latter was a recipe for abuse, as it would be impossible for outsiders to verify the published results.
What makes people doubly suspicious is that when the results were issued, it turned out that a higher percentage of online than in-person voters cast their ballots for UR. Moscow has become a particular focus of attention. The electronic results from Moscow were delayed for several hours. Until they were published, opposition (i.e. non-UR) candidates were leading in nearly all the Moscow constituencies. Once the electronic votes were declared, the balance tipped and UR won every single seat. Some people are calling foul, and suggesting that the delay was caused by the requirement to rig the result and calculate just how many extra votes were needed to give UR a win in each constituency.
The Moscow electoral commission stands by its results and says that the delay was due to the novelty of the system, the large number of electronic voters, and the fact that in Moscow electors had the option to change their vote, which supposedly caused some problems in the system. The commission says that it checked the results 4 times to ensure that they were accurate. You may believe it or not, as you wish.
An explanation for the Moscow anomaly could be that different categories of voters prefer different systems of voting. In last year’s US presidential election, for instance, postal voting was greatly preferred by Biden supporters. Trump appeared to be about to win several states until the results of the postal ballots were added, 80% of which went to Biden, swinging the states in favour of the latter. Perhaps a similar dynamic is at work in Russia. Maybe anti-UR voters didn’t trust electronic voting and so stayed clear of it, thus giving them a majority among paper voters but ensuring a majority the other way around among electronic voters.
Or maybe it was fraud, pure and simple. The very nature of electronic voting means that we don’t the evidence at our disposable to say definitively one way or the other. At any rate, the Moscow electronic results will provide those wanting to denounce the elections as fraudulent with a plausible means of doing so. Defeated Communist candidates are calling for protests in Moscow. It will be interesting to see if anyone turns up.
2. Liberal defeat and New People. If the Communists did well, Russia’s main liberal parties – Yabloko, Civic Platform, and the Party of Growth – did dismally, polling just 1.5% between the three of them, although it looks like they all might get one Duma deputy due to victories in single member constituencies. Yabloko did the best of the three, but at just over 1% this was its worst result ever. At this point it’s hard to see what purpose the party serves by continuing to exist. It’s a mere shell of its former self and I see no way that it can recover. It’s well past time for the banner of liberalism to pass on to somebody else.
That somebody could perhaps be the party New People, which garnered 5% and so is entitled to about a dozen seats in parliament. New People was only created last year, so it’s hard to say much about it or what it stands for. But as far as I’ve been able to find out (and I’m willing to be corrected if I have this wrong), it’s a moderately economically liberal party that stresses getting practical results in Russia’s localities rather than fighting with the authorities in Moscow. If you know your 19th century Russian liberal history, it strikes me as a little bit like the ‘small deeds’ liberalism of the late imperial zemstvo movement.
There’s a long-standing streak in Russian liberalism that regards fighting the state as pretty much the definition of what it means to be liberal. Gosudarstvennost’ (statehood) and obshchestvennost, (roughly speaking, hand-shakeable, liberally correct public opinion) are assumed to be irreconcilable enemies. Consequently, New People’s attitude to the central authorities makes many members of contemporary obshchestvennost’ consider the party to be little more than a bunch of Kremlin stooges. However, given that the alternatives have failed so utterly dismally, New People’s non-confrontational approach may be about the only hope that Russian liberalism has for a revival.
Will New People amount to anything? Only time will tell, but for now it can legitimately claim to have more appeal among liberally-minded urban professional types than do the likes of Yabloko. Likewise it has some good reasons for claiming that its approach offers greater prospects than the street liberalism of radicals like Alexei Navalny.
Which provides a suitable link for a discussion of ‘smart voting.’
3. Smart Voting. This is the scheme dreamt up by imprisoned activist Alexei Navalny and his team. It encourages electors to vote for whatever candidate in a given constituency has the best chance of defeating the candidate of United Russia. It doesn’t matter which party that first candidate is from – smart voting says that you should vote for him or her in order to stop UR from winning.
Navalny and his boosters claim that smart voting is the bees knees and has the powers that be trembling in their beds. The reality is that it is a dud.
Navalny’s top aide, Leonid Volkov, claims that smart voting won in nearly all the constituencies in Moscow and St Petersburg, at least until the authorities fiddled the vote with the online results. There’s a few things wrong with this.
In the first place, fraud or no fraud, at the end of the day, the candidates recommended by smart voting lost. In the second place, most of them were Communists. If they did well, it was because of the general upsurge in Communist support, not because of smart voting, which in any case didn’t identify the preferred candidates until the day before the election and so can’t have made that much of a difference. Calling Communists ‘Navalny-backed candidates’ and claiming credit for their success is a fraud that nobody should fall for.
And third, in some cases where non-UR candidates won, they did so despite smart voting recommending somebody else. For instance, the Communists beat UR into second place in the far eastern province of Yakutia, but smart voting told people in Yakutia to vote for A Just Russia. Anybody who followed smart voting’s advice would have helped UR not hindered it. Similarly, a Yabloko candidate managed to win a seat in a by-election for the Moscow City Council. But smart voting told electors to cast their ballot for the Communist candidate. This latter case, I think, proves the point that even in Moscow, the most liberal city in Russia, voters don’t do what smart voting tells them to.
To tell if smart voting had any effect, one would have to do a detailed study comparing local single-member constituency results with the votes cast for party lists in the same constituencies, taking into account issues which might distort the sample, such as the popularity or non-popularity of individual candidates. Obviously, this is beyond my means. But even if one did manage to find some minor impact in a few places, at the macro-level UR won nearly 200 of the 225 constituency seats. At the level which matters, in other words, smart voting failed totally.
This confirms what I’ve been saying for a long time, namely that Navalny and his team are over-hyped deadenders. It’s time to stop pretending otherwise.