Russian Elections 2020 Part Two: What happened?

September 13, Election Day at the House of Scientists Akademgorok Polling Place

In Part One I explored the idea being promoted that City Council elections in Novosibirsk, the 3rd largest city in Russia, are the key to the future of Russian elections. The reasons for Novosibirsk as a bellweather are its independent streak as manifest by a Communist Mayor and the lack of a “system” for controlling the outcome. Add to this all 50 deputies are popularly elected, a wide range of candidates were running, and while the typical grab bag of dirty tricks were in full force, there was plenty of opportunity for candidates to get their message out. One more critical feature, voters were provided with a “no excuses” slate of opportunities to participate with 8 days for early voting, 3 days 8AM-8PM for regular voting, and a home voting option. Officially presented as a response to COVID, the opposition characterized expanding the voting options as providing a strategic increase in opportunities for the authorities to cheat.

At home voting

Another reason Novosibirsk is worth a close look relates to a rationale for the recent alleged poisoning of opposition leader Alexey Navalny. One motive put forth is that he, through his candidate allies and smart voting strategy (identifying and promoting any candidate that has the best chance to beat the United Russia candidate), is an existential threat to Putin’s power.

An existential threat, a bombshell, an earthquake, no. Worth all the ink it got in the Western press, no. But, the Navalny results were not nothing. The Navalny team had no representatives in the City Council, now they have four plus a couple of independents who will probably vote with them. Sergey Boyko, the local Navalny headquarters chief, is one of the new deputies and he unseated the Communist Vice Speaker Renat Suleymanov by 212 votes to get there.

Boyko’s victory photo

United Russia (the party in power) did go down from 33 deputies to 23 but at least two Independents have already reported they will work with UR and it has been said the fraction could grow to 28. This contradicts in any practical sense the NY Times assessment, “In the opposition’s biggest victory, Mr. Putin’s United Russia party lost its majority on the City Council in Novosibirsk..”. One of these Independents is Lilia Goncharova who was not shy about her plans in a post election interview with the online newspaper SibFM, “ I have been working for a long time as an assistant to a United Russia Deputy and I think that it is more effective for the District. Support is always needed, it is difficult to achieve something without it and promote solutions to our voters problems”. It appears that UR’s strategy to outsmart Navalny’s smart voting is to run UR sympathizers as Independents.

The Communists also took loses down to eight from 11 representatives. The social democratic Just Russia party went from one to none. Where did these places go in addition to the Coalition? One Green Party deputy was elected but gains were not all on the liberal front. The non-liberal LDPR contingent went from two to five and the nationalist Rodina now has a representative. As for the eight independents, up from three in 2015, in addition to some voting with UR and the Coalition, at least one is actually Independent.

What about Novosibirsk as a bellweather for future Russian elections? If that is the case then the future is bleak in terms of the most significant indicator, turnout. Despite all of Navalny’s efforts and the international headlines, the voters did not show up. Increasing concerns and dissatisfaction (which are real) are not generating voters. The 18.43% turnout rate this year was 2% LOWER than the 2015 City Council elections. The average turnout in districts running Coalition candidates was even slightly lower than the overall at 18.23%. The fear tactics being used by both the ruling party (outside influence, things could get crazy) and the Navalny team (they are going to cheat, early voting is a trick) aren’t effective tools for energizing voters.

Empty polling place (SibFM photo)

There is also an enthusiasm gap. A post-election analysis by Ben Aris for Intellinews cited a Reuters quote by Navalny’s close colleague Leonid Volkov, “This completely destroys the whole myth about the 2% of liberals and that their ‘support is only among hipsters inside the Garden Ring road [in Moscow]’”. If there is a myth, it has not been destroyed but slightly tweaked. The 36,615 people in Novosibirsk who registered their support for the Coalition in this election represents only 3% of eligible voters. The conundrum is there is no enthusiasm gap when it comes to running for office. More than 240 people ran for City Council.

So, what can be done to inspire people to vote in a country where the Levada Center reported in July that 59 % of respondents would consider or definitely take part in protests with economic demands? The Novosibirsk City Council election results did provide clues for how to motivate people and maybe even some hope for more meaningful elections and governance that is more responsive to the needs and interests of the people.

Billboards line the streets of Akademgorodok (journalist candidate Erlan Baijanov)

The clues were located back where I started covering elections in 2015, my home district of Akademgorodok. Turnout was the second highest in the City at 27.56% in a race with six candidates. Among them were the usual suspects from the powers that be, the Siberian Academy of Sciences (A Just Russia candidate) and a construction company (UR candidate), and the obligatory LDPR candidate. What was different this time is there were also three candidates who were well known and respected (even by those who don’t like them) battling it out. One of them, a journalist, surprised everyone by running as a Communist, another ran as an Independent and surprised everyone by running at all. The third was the current Independent deputy, Natalia Pinus. This combo inspired the largest raw turnout of the election, 7,284 voters. Second place registered 6,786 voters and only one other district cracked the 6,000 voter mark. The lesson here, field candidates who have been active in the community for a long time.

That isn’t the only lesson. Natalia Pinus was re-elected with the highest voter count of any candidate in the City Council elections, 3,901, and only two other candidates attracted more than 3,000 votes. She got more votes than the turnout number in 10 districts. There are two reasons for her success, she is a very good public servant who was the first deputy to provide regular social network updates on her work and live stream from Council meetings and she is a great campaigner. Pinus soundly defeated her opponents capturing 54% of the vote with her very respected competition getting 22.4% and 10.2%.

Natalia Pinus campaigning in courtyards (from her Facebook page)

In the end, the challenge for any candidate is how to motivate people to show up and vote. Even if you have done a great job and deserve re-election that may not be enough. Strong, real competition matters, the threat of losing something you value. I was reminded of this when one man told me he drove 12 hours to vote for Pinus not because he thought she was doing a good job (which he did) but because he was afraid she would lose. Had the competition not been as good, had there not been billboards promoting her opponents in the most prominent places he would not have felt the threat. More importantly he would not have thought that his vote actually mattered not only in this election, but for the future of his city.

Novosibirsk on a crisp fall day (Photo by Akeksey Tanyshina VN.RU)

Fear works when it is related to losing something of value and there is something you can do to stop it. The campaign is over, it is time for governing. Boyko and the other Navalny Coalition members have five years to inspire more of their constituents with a different kind of fear, that they will lose something they value, deputies who represent their interests, if they don’t show up and vote in the next election.

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Sarah Lindemann-Komarova

Has lived in Siberia since 1992. Was a community development activist for 20 years. Currently, focuses on research and writing.