12.09.22 Review

The Road to Turkmenistan: regional elections in 2022 clouded in silence, intimidation and the mobilisation of “state-dependent” voters

Between 9-11 September, Russia held elections for the first time in its “new reality”: marked by the country’s war in Ukraine and consequent tightening of the screws of repression. In recent years, regional elections have become a hotspot for “protest voting” across the country. As a result, they were seen as a persistent source of unpleasant surprises for Putin’s regime. This year, however, the Kremlin managed to prevent a repeat of this scenario. Experts at the “Golos” movement note in their final review of the election campaign that they have never seen such regional elections in their entire 22-year history of election monitoring. At the regional level there were practically no pre-election campaigns, regional media outlets all but ignored the elections, the majority of admitted oppositional parties and candidates abandoned active campaigning and those rare independent candidates who posed any sort of risk to the regime were subjected to severe pressure, including physical violence. Efforts this year have been aimed at thinning out voter turnout and mobilising “state-dependent” voters, a semi-compulsory task placed on the shoulders of local authorities. Nonetheless, in some regions the elections became a battlefield for local elite groups, at the municipal level they provided a space for outbursts of protest activism, and in Moscow they even helped to mobilise voters against the war.

In the final instalment (“Power and Nothingness”) of their series of reports released shortly before the elections took place, the Golos movement described the efforts of the Kremlin and local administrations to limit electoral competition in the September elections. Re:Russia previously reported on legislative innovations introduced before the elections, “de-partisation” tendencies and attacks on freedom of speech. “The current election campaign is unprecedented: such elections have not been seen in these regions in the entire 22-year history of election monitoring by Golos,” the authors of the report note. “In regions which are conducting only regional elections (governors and legislative assemblies) there are virtually no pre-election campaigns to speak of. They are absent from the media, and the candidates themselves do not make any effort to make their presence known. The government seems to be competing with nothingness.”

A constant source of headaches for the Kremlin in recent years was “protest voting” in regional elections. While this year’s group of regions wasn’t particularly problematic (out of six regions that held elections for regional legislative assemblies, four are known to be “traditionally very electorally controlled”), extraordinary efforts were made to divert voter’s attention from the elections and to prevent protest mobilisation. This was largely made possible because of the behaviour of the oppositional candidates and parties, Golos notes. In most regions they didn’t actively campaign themselves or take part in pre-electoral campaigns, nor did they complain about their opponent’s illegal actions. They also didn’t fight for votes. This means that “strong oppositional candidates became even more prominent targets for the government and security officials against the backdrop of nothingness and mediocrity,” according to experts. As a result, pressure on the opposition was constantly increasing, and if they did not give up during the process of nomination and registration, they were subsequently prevented from campaigning and even intimidated by direct physical violence. Two recent examples include Sergei Burtsev from Northern Izmailovo who was beaten by unknown individuals who broke his spine, and Elena Medvedeva from Yasenovo, who sustained a head injury when she was also attacked.   

While the election campaigns themselves were barely covered by the local press, according to recently established procedures, current heads of the regions or their interims could run for governor (as a result, elections play a secondary role in the whole process, as governors are appointed by the president). Since the law does not require them to step down from their roles during a campaign, they benefit from increased coverage of their activities as heads of federal subjects, thus gaining an upper hand in terms of media coverage. “In total, regional media outlets mentioned “administrative” candidates 9.5 more times than the rest of the candidates put together,” note the authors of the report. During the elections of regional parliaments media representation of parties is “slightly better, but far from the minimum acceptable level.” 

Mentions of governor candidates in regional media, on the websites of government authorities, websites of local governments and organisations

Mentions of political parties in regional media, on the websites of government authorities, websites of local governments and organisations, on average per participating region

 A certain level of competitiveness was observed among candidates who represented different administrative “groups”. For example, in the Yaroslavl region, the elections facilitated another round of confrontation between two public administration teams: the mayor and the governor. Other cases of similar “intraspecies” competition are outlined in an article prepared by Stanislav Andreichuk, a co-chair at Golos. Another example can be found in Alexander Kynev’s Re:Russia article.

A higher level of competitiveness was observed in the municipal elections, which were held this year in Vladivostok, Kirov, Barnaul, Omsk, Yaroslavl and Moscow. These regions have previously exhibited the phenomena of “protest voting”, and this time around the entire playbook of exerting pressure on opponents was used. This included the blockade of political campaigns (80% of electional stands disappeared from the streets of Kirov) and outright repression of candidates (Artem Samsonov, leader of the Primorye Communists, is currently jailed). Voters “controlled” by the government were forcibly mobilised as well: as early voting began in Omsk, reports came through of buses full of voters arriving at the polling stations and excessive queues outside. 

In Moscow, Mikhail Lobanov’s municipal platform “Nomination” (or “You Are the Movement”) and Alexei Navalny’s supporters used the election as a way to campaign for the anti-war movement, urging supporters to vote for candidates expressing an anti-war position, or, at the very least, those who didn’t openly support Russia’s actions in Ukraine. It should be noted, however, that it will be very hard to assess the number of people who voted for their campaigns as the results will be falsified during electronic voting. 

As the government anticipated a thin turnout for these elections, it also prepared to “compensate” the actual numbers using administrative mobilisation. Golos were able to obtain a manual that had been circulating in Kirov called “The Mobilisation Plan”. It indicates how many voters were to be provided by local chapters of United Russia, the town administration and federal agencies, as well as by local businesses. Apart from this, the voting outcome was to be controlled by implementing innovative voting mechanisms: namely a three-day voting system and electronic voting in a number of regions. 

It’s important to note that despite having achieved an almost complete paralysis of federal parties and their leaders, and complete administrative control of all stages of the election campaign, the government is still facing a robust and noticeable movement of grassroots activism in large cities. 

A detailed account of the nature and logic of Russia’s regional electoral campaigns and the specific issues plaguing the current one, as well as how the Communist Party of the Russian Federation lost a large amount of votes for supporting the war, can be found in Re:Russia’s article “Your SMO, our problems” by Alexander Kynev, a leading Russian expert on regional politics.