07.09.23 Analytics

The Zone of Electoral Silence. The key features of the 2023 regional elections

Stanislav Andreychuk
Co-Chair of the 'Golos' Movement

In Russia, the regional elections set to take place on 'Single Voting Day' this Sunday are in areas not historically known for being particularly intense political battles. However, their narratives have been shaped by rivalries between local elite clans, and, since the second half of the 2010s, by episodes of protest mobilisation against the 'party in power' in general or federal elites in specific regions or municipalities. In 2020, Alexei Navalny had planned to organise a powerful campaign for protest voting and subsequent street protests following the regional elections, but these plans were thwarted by his poisoning.

The first 'wartime' elections in 2022 took place in an atmosphere of depression and shock, marked by the overwhelming dominance of administrative resources and a lack of any societal initiative. Nevertheless, this year, despite a general depressive trend and even greater administrative and coercive pressure in some regions, signs of renewed conflict and tension reminiscent of pre-war times have emerged. The most prominent case of this kind occurred in Khakassia, where local elites united in opposition to an 'external' candidate from 'United Russia,' ultimately forcing him to withdraw from the elections.

However, isolated cases of this kind represent rare breaches in the wall of administrative and coercive pressure faced by any unapproved candidates in the majority of Russia’s regions. Further, the key actors behind such pressure are shifting from political administrators to law enforcement agencies. This has led many politicians and businesses to abandon the idea of participating in elections.

But, the most significant feature of these (as in previous) regional elections, which is directly related to the broader political agenda, is the tendency among candidates seeking voter support to avoid discussing the war in Ukraine. According to election participants and political technologists, dwelling on this topic, as well as excessive 'patriotism,' repels voters and carries the risk of conflict during encounters with them. This is vital information for understanding public opinion trends and the peculiarities of the social atmosphere during wartime.

The second important feature of this year's elections will be the expansion of the electronic voting system across the regions. This year, it will be available to nearly 21 million voters, and by the presidential elections in March 2024, it will cover 50% of voters. Aside from being entirely removed from public oversight and even electoral commissions, this electronic voting system is solely controlled by the security services. It also makes it easier for the authorities to organise and control forced voting and exert pressure on voters through corporate channels. The testing of vote result falsification technologies using this system will become the primary focus of federal authorities in the coming days.

Russia’s regional electoral campaigns of 2023 appear to be somewhat livelier than last year's elections, but this increased activity is mainly observed in just a handful of cases, notably in Yakutia, Khakassia, Trans-Baikal, Krasnoyarsk Krai, Irkutsk Oblast, Yekaterinburg, and Veliky Novgorod. At the same time, in most regions this year, observers have described the electoral campaigns as the most senseless, dull, and inconspicuous in the past 30 years. This characterisation applies not only to gubernatorial elections, where such expectations are quite common but also to the elections of regional and local deputies. This contrast is particularly noticeable in regions that were hotly contested just a couple of years ago.

For example, in Yaroslavl Oblast, the 'SRs' (Socialist Revolutionaries) have gone virtually unnoticed, despite winning both single-mandate districts in the State Duma deputy elections just two years ago. In Irkutsk Oblast, which was one of the most opposition-friendly regions in the recent past, the Communists have barely made a mark. In both cases, this year's parties are running very weak, low-budget campaigns.

A Decline in Willing Participants: Financial problems and and power dynamics

One of the main trends in Russia’s 2023 elections is a significant decrease in the number of individuals willing to run as candidates at all levels. For example, in the regional gubernatorial elections, the indicator of formal competition has reached its lowest point since at least 2018, with an average of 5.2 candidates per region. In 2022, this figure stood at 6.3, and in 2018, when the list of elections closely resembled the current one, it was 7.8. In the by-elections for State Duma deputies in four districts, half as many candidates have been nominated as in the same districts in 2021. In the elections for regional deputies, an average of 7.1 lists were nominated per region (ocmpared to 8.7 lists in 2018). In the elections for the city councils of regional capitals, there were only 84 lists this time, down by 15% from the 99 lists in 2018. A similar trend has been observed among single-mandate candidates.

Further, there is a continuing trend of consolidation and standardisation within the party system. Most of the candidates running in these elections are from parties with 'parliamentary privilege,' meaning they do not need to collect voter signatures, as only pre-approved lists and candidates can register through them. Independent candidates are virtually non-existent: in the regional parliament elections, only 94 individuals put forward their candidacies, and only 21 were registered. The 'dropout rate' has increased from 65% to 78% from 2018.

Election commissions report that the 'dropout rate' of parties and candidates in these elections is low. However, the fact is that there was almost no one to drop out. Apart from privileged parties, most of those who were registered are spoiler candidates. A case in point is the fate of the lists of the 'Communists of Russia', whose mission in the elections is to syphon off votes from the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF). Among the 'second-tier' parties, the 'Communists of Russia' nominated the most single-mandate candidates, and their dropout rate was only 5%. The party fielded lists in 11 regions and was rejected in only two. The next 'minor party,' 'Rodina' ('Motherland'), nominated its candidates in nine regions but managed to register in only four. The Pensioners' Party, which performed well in regional elections in 2021, fielded only four lists (though all were registered). It appears that the party of pensioners was less desirable to the authorities this time around, as they were syphoning off too many votes not only from the CPRF and the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) but also from 'United Russia.'

There are several reasons for this reluctance to participate in the elections. First, it is necessary to have a clear idea of who the political class in the regions and party branches consists of. Professional politicians, who essentially make a living by participating in elections, represent only a portion of this class. Another significant group consists of business representatives of various scales who view parliamentary mandates as a means to advance their business interests. It is these individuals who provide the financial resources for election campaigns. However, their motivation has significantly decreased. Some have been preoccupied with saving their businesses around the clock for the past year and a half, others have minimised their presence in Russia, while some have simply chosen to distance themselves from public politics in the current climate, just to be on the safe side.

This motive of 'just in case' has also affected professional politicians. This is quite understandable. This year, the importance of the power factor within the electoral process has significantly increased. It gives the impression that the power structure is gradually displacing political administrators from managing internal politics at all levels — federal, regional, and local. Violence, which was present in previous elections, has now become predominantly state-sponsored and is directed at all categories of election participants: candidates, observers, and voters.

There are numerous examples of this. In Primorsky Krai, where the CPRF had a strong presence, two Communist leaders — former gubernatorial candidate Andrei Ishchenko and Deputy Artem Samsonov — are currently in detention. In Rostov Oblast, a candidate from the CPRF and the head of the town of Millerovo, Vitaliy Abakumov, was placed under house arrest on August 16. In August, a case was opened against Vitaliy Obedin, the leader of the regional branch of the 'Party of Affairs' in Yakutia, a prominent journalist, for displaying the symbols of an extremist organisation. On August 25, the home of Alexey Rigel, a candidate for the Legislative Assembly of the Ulyanovsk Oblast from the 'New People' party, was searched. In Veliky Novgorod, candidates from the 'Yabloko' party have had a series of issues with law enforcement: on August 8, the police seized a part of the circulation of the 'Yabloko' newspaper from the party's office, on August 17, a search was conducted at the apartment of candidate Ksenia Cherepanova, and at the end of August, two administrative cases were opened against candidates Valery Kochnev and Oksana Sergeeva for ‘extremism’. This list could go on and on, and we do not know how many unpublicised threats have been made to politicians. For instance, a few days before the start of voting in the Irkutsk Oblast, the leader of the regional branch of the 'New People' party quit the party — the party, it seems, could potentially have garnered too many votes.

Generally speaking, it appears as though the security forces have doubts about whether the authorities have genuine support and whether the desired results of the upcoming presidential and regional elections can be achieved through political means. Therefore, they seem to have taken control of the electoral process. Against this backdrop, many strong candidates have simply chosen not to run for office, especially in gubernatorial elections, such as in Yakutia, Amur Oblast, and Omsk Oblast.

Campaigning: Lack of substance and opportunities

The state of campaigning in the 2023 Russian elections is far from ideal. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the size of electoral funds falls significantly short of the maximum allowed, which was already considered insufficient. As a result, voters simply do not see much campaigning. In many regions, noticeable campaigning only began in the last days of August, just two weeks before the elections.

Moreover, most parties seem to be struggling with formulating core ideas. The topic of the 'special military operations' (SMO), which was expected to be a major focus of the election campaigns is, effectively, off-limits. Both candidates and campaign staff members have privately admitted this. Candidates have explicitly stated that public support for the actions of the military and overly patriotic rhetoric can lead to problems with their ratings, as the public's reaction during meetings with voters can be unpredictable and sharp. This trend emerged in last year's campaign and has remained relevant. The topic of the military’s actions only surfaces in the campaigning of overtly weak candidates or incumbent governors who, due to their duties, are obliged to address the issues of providing support to the families of servicemen and other 'military' matters.

This limitation affects all parties. ‘United Russia’ has established a de facto taboo on the topic. It is worth noting that despite the discussions at the beginning of the year about the mass inclusion of veterans of military operations on party lists, this did not actually happen. Only about 100 ‘SMO’ participants took part in the ‘United Russia’ primaries at all election levels, half of whom turned out to be active deputies and officials who record their attendance at the front on their resumes.

As a result of its support for the SMO, the CPRF at the federal level has lost a significant part of its situational supporters from among the conventional ‘liberals’ who ‘protest’ voted for the Communists. This effect has also been seen at the regional level, where the party's influence even among its core supporters has diminished. In recent years, the party had positioned itself as a critic of federal authorities, but in the new circumstances, it has been forced to significantly tone down its protest rhetoric.

The Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) are going through an obvious crisis – they are participating minimally in the elections and are almost invisible. The too strong rapprochement between Sergei Mironov and Yevgeny Prigozhin in the last months before the rebellion also had an impact here. In some cases, party members have directly announced their withdrawal from the elections at the request of the presidential administration. Some regional branches (and it was the individual regional branches that made the party strong) are simply falling apart: on the eve of the elections, a whole faction in the Saint Petersburg Legislative Assembly left the party, prominent politician Oleg Shein resigned as the leader of the regional branch in the Astrakhan Oblast, and in Zabaykalsky Krai, the federal leadership disbanded a strong regional branch right in the midst of the election campaign.

In the past, the LDPR could have benefited from such a party crisis, especially in Siberia and the Russian Far East. However, the party has been going through difficult times since the death of Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Zhirinovsky was its main brand, and regional and local campaigns were built around his image. His successor, Leonid Slutsky, does not possess the same charisma, and the LDPR has been forced to continue exploiting Zhirinovsky's image even a year and a half after his death: the party's artificial intelligence speaks in his voice, and his photos are widely used in their campaigning. 'New People,' which became the fifth parliamentary party two years ago, has not gained enough strength and lacks strong candidates in many regions. In this situation, second-tier parties like 'Rodina' and the Pensioners' Party could have made an impact, but they have been practically absent from these elections.

'Yabloko' has also been hardly participating in these elections: there are no gubernatorial candidates, no party lists in regional elections, and only three lists in elections for regional capitals' deputies — in Yekaterinburg, Krasnoyarsk, and Novgorod. The party has gone with the slogan 'For Peace!' in these elections but is facing opposition in its campaigning.

In general, this year has witnessed an unusually explicit merging of the bureaucratic apparatus with the 'party of power.' Government and municipal officials know that there will be no sanctions for violating electoral laws. As a result, websites of government, municipal, and budgetary institutions, as well as groups on social networks created by them, are constantly reporting on the official activities of incumbent governors, 'United Russia' candidates, and party-organised public events. Sometimes these reports contain calls to vote for a particular candidate.

At the same time, authorities are working to make the already rare campaigns of opposition parties and candidates as difficult as possible. In some regions, restrictions on public events imposed during the pandemic are still in place. Due to COVID restrictions, even campaign rallies and individual pickets are prohibited. The military censorship imposed across the country has also had an impact. Even parliamentary parties are now restricted in their channels of communication with voters—many media outlets have closed or are fully focused on a pro-government agenda and are inaccessible to other parties (in some regions, media outlets did not even publish their price lists for campaign advertising at the request of the authorities). The number of available social media platforms has decreased due to blocks and the recognition of Meta as an undesirable company.

Eradicating oversight

Another trend during these elections has been the sharp reduction in oversight opportunities. Over the past year, changes in legislation have effectively eliminated most of the legal statuses that observers used to gain access to polling stations. The status of a member of an election commission with an advisory vote (the most convenient and popular method used by observers) has been abolished. The authority of authorised representatives is terminated with the end of the campaign period, and only full-time employees of media organisations are now allowed as representatives during the vote count. The only remaining status for observers is highly bureaucratised, and attempts are being made to further restrict it through bylaws and practical implementation. Even earlier than this, the Central Election Commission (CEC) began limiting access to official information for citizens, making it difficult to access election commission websites and parse official election results data.

This campaign to reduce election transparency has also included an attack on the observer community. On August 17, 2023, a criminal case was opened under Article 284.1, Part 3 of the Russian Criminal Code ('Organising the activities of a foreign or international non-governmental organisation declared undesirable') against Grigory Melkonyants, co-chair of the 'Golos' movement. Melkonyants was arrested and has been in pre-trial detention for over two weeks, additionally, about a dozen employees of 'Golos' have been searched with equipment, money, and documents confiscated.

Finally, the introduction of remote electronic voting (REV) is having a highly negative impact on oversight capabilities. This year, residents of regions with approximately 20.5 million voters can use two REV systems (federal and Moscow). Moscow alone accounts for about 7 million voters, while the remaining regions are home to about 14 million voters. The CEC has already announced that more than 1 million people, or about 7%, have applied to participate in the federal REV. With an expected voter turnout of around 20-30% in regional and local elections, 'electronic' votes could account for a third of all valid ballots. The scale of REV's use in Moscow is still unknown, but previous experience suggests that these figures will be enormous.

There are no mechanisms for public oversight of REV. In fact, these systems are not even controlled by the respective election commissions. Moreover, in the presidential elections, REV will be used in regions where 50% of voters reside — almost half of all Russian citizens with voting rights.

In addition to its complete lack of transparency, REV poses another serious threat to electoral rights — it facilitates more effective voter coercion, especially when combined with three-day voting. Online voting on the 'Single Voting Day' in 2023 is set to become the largest in world history, and unfortunately, reports of coercing administratively dependent voters to register in REV systems have become widespread. This coercion now extends beyond public sector employees and includes employees of large corporations and even small businesses.

Such coercion is more dangerous than traditional methods of coercion. Voters who were forced to come to regular polling stations are left alone to cast their ballots in a private voting booth and mark their preference without fear of being identified by anyone. This seems to have happened, for example, in the 2019 Moscow elections. However, in the case of online voting, people have legitimate concerns that their votes could be de-anonymised in this opaque system. 'Golos' has been receiving such questions from voters for several years now.

In this way, REV encapsulates the system of electoral administrative mobilisation in Russia, turning it into a state-corporate mechanism.

What Makes Elections 'Alive'? The case of Khakassia 

Given all these facts, it can be disheartening to realise that elections have not only stopped serving as a means to change power but also fail to function as indicators of public sentiment, as was the case in regional elections in the late 2010s. However, Russia is a vast and diverse country and, in this year's elections, unlike last year's, there are regions where truly 'live' elections are taking place. Several such regions exist, but the most notable example is the small Khakassia, which provides an opportunity to peek behind the 'curtain' of 'dead' elections.

The story of the current Khakass elections began back in 2018 when, in the longest electoral campaign in Russian history (which ended only in mid-November and included three 'second rounds'), the incumbent governor unexpectedly lost to the Communist candidate Valentin Konovalov. Over the past five years, Konovalov has managed, on the one hand, to prevent the Kremlin from removing him from office and, on the other hand, to build relationships with local elites. It was this second factor that has played a key role in the current campaign when the Kremlin sent Sergey Sokol, a State Duma deputy nominated by 'United Russia,' to the republic, whose relationship with local elites, on the contrary, did not work out (as had previously happened in the larger Krasnoyarsk Krai and Irkutsk Oblast, where he also had gubernatorial ambitions).

The relationships soured to the extent that influential local politicians began publicly defecting from 'United Russia' to the Communist Party, including the long-serving speaker of the regional parliament since the early 1990s, the former chairman of the local 'United Russia' executive committee, as well as mayors of cities and districts. The 'United Russia' candidate found himself in a situation where he had neither a monopoly on administrative resources, nor the media. Leaked opinion polls showed that his ratings were stagnating, and he was likely to lose the elections. The rivalry ended a week before the elections when Sokol withdrew his candidacy, citing health problems.

Khakassia is not a particularly protest-oriented region; it is quite typical in terms of electoral behaviour. Its example illustrates why the authorities are so persistently sealing off the political system from any competition, observers, and citizens themselves. As soon as the possibility of competition arises, such a campaign starts accumulating dissatisfaction and irritation towards the federal centre and the 'party of power,' acquiring protest-like characteristics.

Generally speaking, for the past ten years, from 2011 to 2021, we have observed a gradually increasing demand from people to have their voices heard during various regional elections. The first disruption occurred in 2014, this demand resurfaced in 2017, and it became even stronger in 2018. The events of 2022 temporarily drowned it out but did not suppress it entirely. The only way the Kremlin has found to manage this demand for 'participation' is to prevent any politicians who could articulate it clearly from participating in elections and, if possible, to protect elections from dissatisfied voters (both by excluding candidates and manipulating turnout).

The Khakass campaign also revealed significant contradictions between federal and local elites. It is not about Sokol's personal qualities. For several years, we've witnessed sharp conflicts between municipal authorities, on the one hand, and regional and federal authorities, on the other, in various regions, including Karelia, Yaroslavl Oblast, Primorsky Krai, and more. The Kremlin needed municipal reform to increase control over local authorities, but local resistance to it was so great that on the eve of the start of the presidential campaign it had to be postponed until calmer times.

Elections like those in Khakassia reveal the true reason for such strict control over the accessibility of elections for those who want to run, media resources, and opportunities for election observation. The smallest breaches in this wall can become a stage for real confrontations and conflicts, the most popular of which are the confrontation of citizens with the power-bureaucratic vertical and the confrontation of regional elites with the federal government.