Staunton, August 23 – Representatives of the ruling United Russia Party occupy 76 percent of the 192,000 seats on the 19,000 municipal councils of the Russian Federation, according to a new study conducted by Novaya gazeta and the Elections of Russia Project (novayagazeta.ru/articles/2021/08/23/er-s-nimi).
In some regions, United Russia’s dominance is greater. In Mordvinia, for example, it controls 96 percent of deputies in the local councils; but in 170, largely in Moscow, Buryatia and the Transbaikal, there are municipal councils on which there is not a single United Russia deputy, the study found.
The exact numbers are problematic, political analyst Abbas Gallyamov says, because sometimes those who run as United Russia candidates are only nominally so and at others, United Russia candidates run as independent candidates so as to gain the votes of those who might not vote for the ruling party.
That tactic is especially common in major cities where opposition to United Russia is greater and where opposition parties are better organized and represented, other analysts say. Opposition party candidates are under-represented for several reasons, analyst Aleksandr Kynyev says.
In many places, these parties don’t exist or don’t focus on local elections. In others, officials work to exclude them from running. But everywhere, the majoritarian principle in which those candidates with the most votes are elected works against the opposition which is typically fragmented while United Russia isn’t.
Voter interest in these elections is typically small, and as a result, in about half of all such elections, the winners garnered only about 80 more votes each than the losers. In some places, they didn’t need even that margin: 800 municipal deputies won by less than ten votes each, the study reported.
As the Russian government has become more centralized, the municipal councils have seen their powers constricted. But they still matter on many local issues and as part of the municipal filter candidates for higher office have to pass through. Control of these councils thus matters to those in power.
Political scientist Andrey Buzin points out that “an anti-democratic state cannot have an independent lower level of power because such a level would always begin to insist on its rights and pressure those above.” In Russia today, “we are returning to the Soviet Union, where instead of self-administration there was a single vertical.”
Gallyamov agrees. But he suggests that if the opposition wants to make a difference at the upper levels, it should not ignore the municipal councils. Given how few votes separate winners and losers at that level, they could make a difference; and victories there “would mark the democratization of the political process” from the bottom up.