Tuesday, September 15, 2015

United Russia Loses Ground ‘on the Periphery’ of the Country

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 15 – Nearly a half century ago, Jerome Gilison analyzed soviet elections as a measure of dissent by looking at “the missing one percent,” the tiny share of voters in the union republics who did not vote for the Communist Party list (American Political Science Review, no. 3 (1968).

            Now that Vladimir Putin has re-Sovietized the electoral system in Russia and thus discredited elections as a means for the population to influence political outcomes (on these two trends, see respectively grani.ru/opinion/petrov/m.244278.html and  vestnikcivitas.ru/news/3864), observers are being forced back to a similar approach.

            Some are focusing on the rare victories of the systemic opposition, others are focusing on the ranking of the various parties systemic and otherwise, and still a third group on the way in which the elections, for all their shortcomings, have at least had Russians talking about the situation in their own country rather than the situation in Ukraine (ej.ru/?a=note&id=28596).

            But one pattern has received relatively little attention, perhaps because as usual, trends and events that take place beyond the ring road of the Russian capital almost always do, and that pattern is this: In a variety of ways including record low levels of participation and “against all” voting, the Kremlin’s party of power is “losing the periphery.”

            That phrase is the subtitle of an article by Ramazan Magomedov about the course of the elections in Daghstan. There, he writes, United Russia won in Makhachkala and some of the smaller municipalities, but the party of power lost and lost big in several of the larger regional centers (kavpolit.com/articles/vybory_v_dagestane_edinorossy_terjajut_periferiju-19899/).

            The biggest of these losses was in Buynaksk where United Russia’s candidates received only 18.6 percent of the vote.  That happened, Magomedov says, because of the successful campaign of the Party of Veterans of Russia, which was formed in 2012 and gained strength after the Crimean Anschluss.

            That party’s leadership did well in Bakchisaray and decided to focus its efforts in Daghestan in Buynaksk, where the incumbents had been in office for a long time and where mounting problems had alienated much of the population. It thus ran less for anything in particular than against the office holders.

            The Party of Veterans of Russia received 68.8 percent of the vote, almost four times as many as United Russia, and it will receive “at a minimum,” 12 of the 21 seats in the city council.

            United Russia pulled out all the stops during the campaign but none of its administrative powers helped: Opponents pointed to numerous violations on the day of voting as well as pro-incumbent thugs who beat up those waiting to vote and a system in which United Russia activists paid people to vote for that party.

            In Babayurt, the KPRF won, although by only a tiny fraction of a percent; but as in Buynaksk, the election was marked by violence and injuries.  And in Kizlyar, United Russia also suffered a defeat as seven other parties received more than five percent of the vote and gained seats in the city council.

            United Russia did win in the republic capital, garnering 60 percent of the vote across the city, but by near universal consent, “the elections [there] were far from honest.” Sometimes ballots were destroyed; at others, they were simply excluded if it appeared that any opposition group was going to get many votes; and occasionally pro-United Russia voters were allowed to cast more than one ballot.

            For all these reasons, Rasul Kaliyev, a lawyer in Daghestan, says that the United Russia victory there is hollow because in reality, “the level of legitimacy of ‘United Russia’ in Makhachkala did not reach 15 percent,” let alone the 60 percent the party claimed and officials registered (kavpolit.com/articles/vybory-19885/).

            An even more general problem with this round of elections that the victory of United Russia in the big cities and its losses outside them was record low participation across the board.  Because elections were so falsified earlier and because so many opposition candidates were excluded by legal chicanery, in many places, few people voted (kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/268902/).

            That created a problem for election officials: They had to decide whether enough people had shown up to make the elections valid. Throughout the country and apparently on order, they did so even though in many cases, it was far from clear whether a sufficient number of people had gone to the polls.

            Finally, in this brief survey of election problems, there is the case of the Wepsy village of Sheltozer, where voters overwhelmingly cast their ballots “against all” the candidates and where republic officials are blaming outside agitators for this legal action and threatening local people with criminal punishments (forum-msk.org/material/news/10991110.html).

            What the residents of Sheltozer did was entirely legal – Karelia restored the “against all” line for municipal elections earlier this year – but the pro-regime incumbent was furious because “against all” received twice as many votes as he did, despite a mass influx of regime officials and the intimidating presence of pro-regime popular militias.

            Almost as soon as the polls closed and the votes were counted, Karelia’s central election commission struck back, saying that the voting in Sheltozer had been disrupted by “an organized group of people,” that they would be found, and brought to justice for their “’illegal’ agitation for the candidate ‘against all.’”

            Aleksandr Stepanov, a KPRF deputy in Karelia’s legislative assembly, came out in defense of the voters. He said that they had done nothing wrong or illegal and that he and his party want to defend them against the overreaching actions of the pro-regime candidate and his supporters in Petrozavodsk.

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