Everyone assumes that the Kremlin cheats when it comes to elections. Did the Kremlin steal the Moscow City election for mayor on September 8 from opposition blogger Alexei Navalny?
Stuffing ballots has been par for the course. It is widely accepted that the authorities added about 12% to the ruling United Russia's result in the 2011 parliamentary elections - just enough to give it a clear majority. Likewise, many assume the Kremlin added about 5% to Russian President Vladimir Putin's result to give him over 60% in the May 2012 presidential election - enough to reassure the plutocratic elite that their man (and the source of their wealth) has a firm grip on things.
In Russia's system of "managed democracy" the democratic part means that Russians really do get to vote and their votes really do matter (and the majority genuinely want Vladimir Putin as president).
But in the "managed" part the Kremlin happily adds a few percentage points to the results to get over key hurdles that represent radically different balances of power in the resulting body politic. In the case of the Duma elections, United Russia needed to have a clear majority to give it control of the lower house and most of the crucial committees; in the case of the presidential election, Putin needed to have a comfortable lead to win in the first round and reassure his clients he has a firm grip on power.
Likewise, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin needed to win in the first round, as this translates into clear authority over the city. According to the official results, Sobyanin won 51.3% vs Navalny's 27.1%.
But if you drill down into the distribution of voting, a pattern emerges - the same one that gave United Russia its victory in the Duma race and sparked the protest movement.
According to the official results, Moscow can be divided into three general areas: districts that clearly favour the incumbent mayor, those that clearly favour the opposition, and those where they ran neck and neck.
In general, the central districts - those inside the Garden Ring and in the southeast - clearly support Navalny. In the Gagarinsky district in the southwest near the university, Navalny actually got more votes than Sobyanin: 38.53 vs. 37.30%. Putin also did badly in these districts during the presidential vote in 2012, scoring less than 50%, his worst result.
Further out, the edges of the city and the newest parts of Moscow traditionally favour the establishment and indeed the results in these parts were closely in line with the pre-election polls predictions: 55-65% for Sobyanin, 15-20% for Navalny.
The problems are with where Sobyanin won the very most votes. In eight districts from the total of 127 (Kosino-Ukhtomsky, Solntsevo, Dmitrovsky, Biryulevo Zapadnoye, Kapotnya, Troitsky AD, Nekrasovka and Novomoskovsky AD), Sobyanin won over 60% of the vote. As the chart (below) shows clearly, there is a spike in support amongst these districts. Sobyanin did extraordinary well in these districts - despite the fact he did not visit these districts, made little mention of them, offered no specific development plans for them, or did any real campaigning in any of the city at all.
Nevertheless, these extra votes from these districts were crucial in pushing Sobyanin's total over the crucial 50% mark needed to win in the first round.
What makes this suspicious is that it's almost exactly the same way United Russia won its majority in 2011. It was also very close to failing to win 50% of the vote, but again a handful of regions, mostly in the Caucasus, turned in close to 100% support for the party. Like the Moscow mayoral election, the extraordinarily strong support for United Russia in only six regions was enough to ensure its majority.
The voting in the presidential election was much more evenly distributed and Putin would have won a clear majority with no cheating, although here too the Caucasus voted heavily in Putin's favour.
While this analysis is not conclusive, it does raise serious questions about the validity of the count. The form seems to be that rather than blatantly fixing the elections, as is the norm in Central Asia, the Kremlin is playing a more subtle game. It only manipulates voting in a few key regions to ensure the overall count passes the crucial threshold. The count in the rest of the regions is largely valid. Indeed, Navalny won the vote in a third of Moscow districts and United Russia won less than a majority of votes in two-thirds of Russia's regions in 2011.
Navalny's camp has clearly latched onto the same oddities in the voting patterns. It has called for a partial recount in a few key locations and to scrutinise the polling station CCTV footage. It has also called into question the postal "at home" ballots that turned out strongly in the incumbent mayor's advantage.
If Navalny can force a partial recount, and if the discrepancies are proven to be ballot stuffing, then it is almost certain there will have to be a recount. But if it comes to that, then the courts could simply reject Navalny's current appeal against a five-year sentence on corruption charges that was passed down in August at a controversial trial. Then Navalny would have to leave to serve his sentence and would be automatically barred from office.
Will this probable vote fraud lead to more and bigger protests? The form seems to be that the population will tolerate the Kremlin adding a few percentage points to the result - as in the presidential elections - but the 12% handed to United Russia was a bridge too far. Given Sobyanin appears to have received a few extra points, the form suggests that the population will accept this result after some griping.
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