20.07.23 Review

Electoral Control Show: How the Kremlin is preparing for the 2023-2024 election cycle in the midst of war

In the run-up to the next electoral cycle, which will culminate in the presidential election in March 2024 with the regional elections on 10 September serving as a rehearsal, the Kremlin is fine-tuning its tools of manipulation and control. These tools are designed to prevent any missteps that would prevent the election cycle from turning into a demonstration of total support for Vladimir Putin and his agenda. The amendments that have been made to electoral legislation over the past year have prepared the legal framework for conducting elections under martial law and semi-martial law contrary to constitutional norms. They restrict oversight of the electoral process by electoral commissions, trusted representatives of candidates, and the media. The amendments also prohibit campaigning on blocked media platforms, make it more difficult for independent candidates to crowdfund, and further increase the proportion of majoritarian deputies in regional legislative assemblies, according to a special report by 'Golos'.

However, history has shown that even in 'outdated' and repressive autocracies, the electoral show of popular support can transform into an unexpected crisis if voters and elites perceive the regime as fragile due to certain external circumstances.

Russian authorities are actively preparing for the major electoral cycle, which will culminate in Putin's reelection in March 2024. In autocracies, elections are used as a propaganda campaign to showcase widespread support for the autocrat and his agenda. What matters is not the sincerity and reality of this support, but the regime's ability to orchestrate the appearance of uncontested elections. The success of this demonstration of support sends a signal to opposition groups, elites, and external actors that the regime is in full control, while even partial failure sends a signal in the opposite direction. To successfully achieve this goal, experience has shown that the authorities must limit the ability of observers to publish evidence of direct falsification of votes and curtail opportunities to organise mass protests against the manipulated election results.

The regional elections in Russia on September 10, 2023, are expected to serve as a rehearsal for the big show of electoral control in March. In the late 2010s, regional elections became platforms for expressing feelings of dissent, leading to unexpected and uncontrollable outcomes in certain regions in both 2018 and 2019. In the spring of 2022, amid Russia's unsuccessful invasion of Ukraine, authorities even considered cancelling the September regional elections. Now the Kremlin feels relatively confident and as such is actively preparing for the big show in March. According to sources from 'Meduza,' the goal is to demonstrate record-breaking levels of support for the ageing president, aiming for more than 80% (in 2018, Putin garnered 78% of the vote, according to the Central Election Commission).

September 10, 2023, there will be elections for the heads of 21 regions in Russia, 16 regional parliaments, and elections for deputies of representative bodies will be held in 12 cities.

The regions set to elect new heads include: Yakutia, Khakassia, Altai Krai, Krasnoyarsk Krai, Primorsky Krai, Amur Oblast, Voronezh Oblast, Ivanovo Oblast, Kemerovo Oblast, Magadan Oblast, Moscow Oblast, Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, Novosibirsk Oblast, Omsk Oblast, Orel Oblast, Pskov Oblast, Samara Oblast, Smolensk Oblast, Tyumen Oblast, Moscow, and Chukotka Autonomous Okrug.

The regions holding elections for regional parliaments are: Bashkortostan, Buryatia, Kalmykia, Yakutia, Khakassia, Trans-Baikal Krai, Arkhangelsk Oblast, Vladimir Oblast, Ivanovo Oblast, Irkutsk Oblast, Kemerovo Oblast, Rostov Oblast, Smolensk Oblast, Ulyanovsk Oblast, Yaroslavl Oblast, and Nenets Autonomous Okrug.

In the year preceding this new electoral cycle, the authorities have actively engaged in amending electoral legislation in order to restrict citizens' oversight of elections and create additional safeguards against the success of what they see as undesirable candidates. A comprehensive overview of these amendments has been presented in a new analytical report by 'Golos'. Between June 2022 and May 2023, a total of six amendments were made to the federal law 'On Basic Guarantees of Electoral Rights and the Right of Citizens of the Russian Federation to Participate in a Referendum.' One such amendment which deserves particular attention is Federal Law No. 498-FZ introduced on December 5, 2022, 'On Amending Certain Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation,' which states that individuals recognised as 'foreign agents' are not allowed to become members of electoral commissions. However, there are key introductions concentrated in Federal Law No. 184, adopted on May 29 of this year, just before the start of the electoral campaign.

The most impactful aspect of this law is article 10, which allows for elections to be held in a state of emergency, martial law and semi-martial law. According to the Russian Constitution, elections cannot be held during martial law, which implies, among other things, the restriction of some constitutional rights of citizens. Nevertheless, the law circumvents these constitutional norms and allows for elections to be held under such conditions. Martial law was declared by presidential decree on October 19, 2022 in the regions of Ukraine occupied by the Russian army, and a state of semi-martial law was declared in the Central and Southern federal districts. As a result, elections can now be conducted where there are direct official bans, in particular on holding rallies and demonstrations. This is effectively a mechanism of combining extraordinary measures that restrict political freedoms with the conduct of electoral campaigns that was previously tested in the summer of 2020 when the referendum on lifting presidential term limits for Vladimir Putin took place amid COVID-19 restrictions. Now, this mechanism has a legal basis, fictional, but nonetheless legally formalised.

Moreover, the law significantly reduces opportunities for citizen oversight over the voting process in order to limit the spread of visual evidence of falsification. In particular, the status of a member of an electoral commission with advisory voting rights has been abolished, the presence of candidate representatives at polling stations on the voting day is prohibited, and the presence of media representatives at polling stations is restricted to a specially designated area, and is contingent on having a labour contract with the media outlet.

Additionally, the law directly prohibits pre-election campaigning on platforms that are restricted by federal executive authority. This not only limits the ability to campaign on social media but also gives the authorities the power to remove undesirable candidates under the pretext of such campaigning. The new law also sets a minimum voluntary contribution to electoral campaigns at 3% of minimum wage (approximately 400 rubles), which is aimed at curbing crowdfunding for election campaigns in Russia’s provinces. According to the 'To Be Exact' project, the average donation in Russia in May 2023 was 727 rubles, and in the human rights sector (the most politically involved charity sector), it was 589 rubles. However, what matters in this case is not the average amount donated but rather the median or even the 'mode,' i.e. the most frequently donated amount, which is around or below 400 rubles.

Further, it has become more difficult for citizens not directly affiliated with political parties to participate in regional elections. In this cycle, individuals are only able to nominate themselves as independent candidates for the post of regional head in Moscow and Omsk Oblast (previously, such an option was available in Kemerovo Oblast and Primorsky Krai). In the late 2010s, amid the declining popularity of 'United Russia,' the Kremlin allowed official gubernatorial candidates to run as ‘self-nominated' candidates. However, the tightening of political control that has taken place over the past few years has resulted in a return to the practice of ‘party affiliation’, making an exception only for megacities where the risk of protests during elections still persists.

In six of the 16 regions where elections for regional deputies will take place, the share of majoritarian mandates has increased significantly (on average, each region has 9-10 more). There has been significant gerrymandering, and in some regions (e.g. Kalmykia), candidates will not know the boundaries of their district until the first day of the election campaign due to these changes. The shift towards a majoritarian system has diminished the importance of voting based on party lists and is linked to the Kremlin's fears that undesirable local activists, primarily from the Communist Party, might end up on regional party lists, as has been the case in previous electoral cycles.

The situation looks similar for the elections of deputies in administrative centres. This year, such elections will be held in 12 cities, two of which (Veliky Novgorod and Yekaterinburg) have also seen an increase in the number of candidates elected with majoritarian mandates and a decrease in the number of candidates on party lists. Moreover, in Belgorod and Tyumen, there was already a bias towards majoritarianism in the last electoral cycle, which resulted in almost 2.5 times more majoritarian deputies in both cities. Only in three administrative centres (Abakan, Magas, and Maykop) does the number of deputies on party lists exceed the number of majoritarian candidates, and in five, the number of candidates voted via each means is equal.

Tomsk mayoral elections were also due to be held this year, but a few days before the elections, regional deputies changed the procedure for electing the mayor from direct to appointment by deputies. As a result, the city still does not have a mayor, as the scheduled competition for the position did not take place in the spring of 2023. This is a continuation of a trend seen in the 2010s, which limits the actual opportunities for political competition. First, large cities, which are usually regional capitals, are most affected by modernisation processes, leading to a more oppositional population. Second, a mayor elected through direct elections in the regional capital, where a significant share of the population and the economy is concentrated, has often turned out to be a counterbalance to the power of the regional governor.

As a result of the extensive repression during the war, the potential for resistance to the increasing hollowing out of electoral procedures, and their alignment with the standards of despots, is virtually non-existent in Russia at the moment. In this sense, the Kremlin will be able to create even more sterile conditions for the falsification of the voting results in the current electoral cycle. However, real voter sentiments will be influenced by external factors, primarily their attitude towards the protracted war in Ukraine. As the practices of many authoritarian regimes have demonstrated, the electoral show of nationwide support can lead to sudden crises, even in 'outdated' and sufficiently repressive autocracies, if the voters and elites sense the regime's vulnerability due to certain external circumstances.