LONG READ: Russia's hybrid Duma elections

LONG READ: Russia's hybrid Duma elections
Russia goes to the polls in what may be its last hybrid elections. A large number of the regional votes are actually free and more or less fair. Those are the target of Navalny's smart voting. But in a handful of regions the Kremlin relies on massive falsification to get the results it wants. / Wiki
By Ben Aris in Berlin September 16, 2021

Russia goes to the polls this weekend to vote in a new Duma. There is little doubt that the ruling United Russia will win a majority. The elections are fixed. But they are not fixed in the way that the Central Asian potentates regularly deliver themselves a victory with north of 95% of the vote. The Kremlin also needs as many genuine votes as it can get, because if the gap between the real votes and the final official results is too wide that will cause mass protests.

Russia has a hybrid democracy. The Kremlin cannot get away with simply announcing a landslide victory. Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko tried that on August 9 last year and within hours the entire country erupted into mass protests that are still ongoing.

Political scientists estimate that the Kremlin cannot inject more than about 10% of the total votes into the count without the people taking to the streets. That's what happened in the 2011 Duma elections – one of the dirtiest to date – when statisticians believe the Kremlin injected some 12% extra votes into the count and 100,000 people took to the streets in Bolotnaya Square across the river Moskva to demonstrate.

The administration has many tools at its disposal like a monopoly on television, but ironically it also tries to convince the population to vote for its candidates by conventional means: dealing with genuine grievances and providing budget hand-outs to soldiers and pensioners. In order to make the vote more believable it has even set up CCTV cameras in all the polling stations so that people could monitor the voting, although that went badly wrong when the same cameras recorded many incidents of blatant ballot stuffing.

However, in about a dozen of the 450 races the vote is considered to be “mostly” free and fair. In the majority of the districts the authorities can “edit” the results to make sure their candidates get across the finish line. But the Kremlin actually relies on around eight “electoral sultanates” – mostly in the malleable Caucuses, where there is massive fixing of the vote to get the tally over 50% to ensure victory.

Half the Duma is elected in single-mandate districts (SMDs) in a majoritarian, first-past-the-post system where a plurality of votes is enough to win a seat. In 2016, Putin’s United Russia party won 203 of 225 these seats — more than 90% — with only around half of the total vote nationally.  

In more than half of single-member districts, the governing party won with less than 50% of the vote; in fact, in some Moscow and St. Petersburg districts, United Russia won a mandate with barely more than 25%.

In most of the districts where the party did not win, it did not even field a candidate; essentially gifting these seats to a candidate from the so-called “systemic” opposition parties, Potemkin organizations designed to give the appearance of opposing the government.  

“The fact that there are significantly fewer districts this year where United Russia will allow a free run to others betrays the anxiety of the authorities about guaranteeing the party a constitutional supermajority (300 or more of 450 seats) without engaging in electoral falsification so widespread and blatant as to trigger a response on the streets,” Andras Toth-Czifra said in an article for CEPA.  

Navalny's smart voting campaigns are limited to the dozen or so single-mandate districts where there is a chance of upsetting the result and electing someone other than the United Russia canddiate. What is striking about these elections is the majority of those candidates are from teh Communist party: Team Navalny released a list of 225 challengers to support in these elections 48 hours before teh polls open (so the candidates can no longer be withdrawn) of which 137, or 60%, were communist candidates

The need for large and genuine support is the Kremlin’s Achilles heel that has been skillfully exploited by Team Navalny, the informal group set up by jailed anti-corruption activist and opposition politician Alexei Navalny. If the race were truly a foregone conclusion as it is in Azerbaijan or Turkmenistan there would be no point participating; a boycott would be the obvious response. However, by targeting those races that are largely open with its “smart voting” – asking swing voters to vote for any candidate that could beat the ruling United Russia candidate – because the race is open there is a good chance that this tactic will work.

Smart voting has become a major headache for the Kremlin. With United Russia’s popularity falling in the polls thanks to more than six years of real income stagnation and the steady erosion in the standard of living, it seems the Kremlin has run out of ideas. This year has seen the most extreme use of open repression in the campaign as opposition leaders like Navalny have been hounded or driven into exile and a slew of independent media outlets crushed or closed.

Moreover, new election rules introduced earlier this year will make it easier to fix elections in the future. The voting period has been extended to three days and entirely opaque electronic voting introduced in seven regions. Pundits are saying these elections will be the last ones with any semblance of a free and fair vote.

The 1990s context

If Russia held international standard free elections then more than likely United Russia would still win around 35% of the vote and remain the dominant player. However, it would then have to share power, most likely with the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), which could take about 15% of a free vote.

However, that result is unacceptable to Russian President Vladimir Putin as his main constituency, the basis of his power, is the elite and especially the security forces. Putin’s personal sky-high popularity and his solid grip on the Duma make him invulnerable, but if he loosens his grip on either of those things then he opens himself up to a palace coup, and Russia’s democratic institutions and civil society are so weak a successful coup would simply install a new hard-to-oust leader. Putin has been caught in a trap of his own making.

But most Russians are happy to vote for the powers that be as they remain grateful for the stability and prosperity Putin brought after the chaos of the Yeltsin era. At the same time, they don't see a viable alternative. The Kremlin has crushed the opposition, but as the Moscow Times reported, what opposition candidates are left are fissiparous and given to fighting amongst themselves, fragmenting the protest vote into ineffective shards.

The economic chaos of the 1990s that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union has traumatised the population. Putin brought a decade and half of rapid economic growth that transformed the quality of life and brought it onto a par with the lower half of the EU. No one wants to risk a revolution that would destroy the gains that have been made.

A joke circulating on social media has it: “In Ukraine they are voting to make life better as it can’t get much worse. In Russia they are voting to stop things getting worse, as it was a lot worse before.”

Putin’s Wirtschaftswunder – the foundation of his popularity and the basis of his power – has run out of steam since sanctions were imposed in 2014, and social unrest has been building steadily since then. The Kremlin is well aware the clock is ticking. Voters want change and other than the 12 national projects that are supposed to revitalise the economy the Kremlin has few alternatives.

This year’s repression means protests have become less likely, but people’s willingness to participate in them, should they happen, has gone up: 43% of Russian respondents to a recent Levada Center poll said they anticipated protests with economic demands in January, only 26% of respondents said the same in August, but the same respondents said their own willingness to take to the streets for economic demands rose from 17% in January to 24% in August. The results for protests with political demands are the same.

Russia is a long way from any kind of so-called coloured revolution, but the Kremlin must deal with the growing discontent. Caught between the need to have as legitimate an election as possible and the Kremlin’s falling popularity, it is finding it increasingly difficult to manage the system Putin has built over the last two decades.

Four pillars

“Russia’s electoral system since the mid-2000s stands on four pillars. The first two are the government’s control of candidate registration and of media coverage. The third pillar is voter coercion, while the fourth is vote rigging on election day itself,” wrote Stanislav Andreychuk, a council member of the Movement for Defence of Voters’ Rights “Golos,” a leading civil society group, in an article for Riddle.ru.

The Kremlin tightened electoral laws over the summer, making it more difficult to register and impossible for Navalny and his associates. All together some 9mn Russians have been excluded from standing in elections. And the new laws are so vague they can be used to exclude nearly anyone the authorities don't like.

Despite the tightening of the rules it has become easier to register to run for election than in 2007 and 2011, says Andreychuk, as counterintuitively the Kremlin tries to improve the legitimacy of the elections. There are more parties (32 in total, up from 15 in 2011, of which 14 have been cleared to participate in elections) and in 225 single mandate electoral districts, which have been introduced since 2011, candidates can self-nominate.

“Needless to say, authorities have successfully filtered out undesirables, but the chance to slip through the net and onto the ballot is much higher today than ten years ago,” says Andreychuk.

The second pillar has been a key focus this year. The Kremlin has dramatically cracked down on the media in the run-up to these elections, but at the same time it has also lost control of the dissemination of information thanks to the rise of social media in recent years. It tried to ban the Telegram messaging service in 2018 but gave up two years later.

The state continues to dominate television, but as most of the country is online and gets most of its news from social media they have free access to information. Moscow failed to take control of the internet like Beijing did, and the Kremlin is only now trying to impose some control, largely unsuccessfully.

Case in point: only days after he was arrested in January Navalny released an expose called “Putin’s Palace” that detailed a luxury villa the president was said to own on the Black Sea coast that garnered over 100mn views in a population of 150mn.

“And social media shows a totally different world than the one on TV, showing how the Communist Party (KPRF) is starting to compete with United Russia, and other political parties and candidates are on the rise,” says Andreychuk.

The third pillar is voter coercion, but that is not working well either. Companies regularly exert pressure on their staff to vote for a government candidate, threatening them with fines or the sack if they don't. Entire barracks of soldiers are bussed to polling stations and given instructions on whom to vote for.

However, falling living standards have eaten away at the channels of control as Russians use their vote to protest or simply refuse to vote at all. Russia used to have an “against all” option on its ballots, but it was removed in 2006 after the category threatened to start winning elections.

The elections to the Moscow City Duma in 2019 is the best known example of voters ignoring the threats and casting a protest vote. It also highlights the partial freedom Russians have at the polls. While most of the United Russia candidates won, Navalny’s smart voting nearly caused a major upset. It reduced United Russia’s margins significantly and several United Russian candidates lost their seats. The smart voting affected about 5.6% of the total vote, according to experts, and played a decisive role in the victory of several non-systemic opposition candidates.

IV. Falsification

The last pillar is outright falsification. The Kremlin’s goal in the elections is to ensure that it passes certain crucial thresholds. In these elections United Russia needs to win 226 seats out of the total of 450 on offer to ensure it has a majority and control of the crucial Duma committees that actually make the law. In the 2018 presidential election Putin was the clear winner, but there too the results were “edited”, so he ended up winning a number of votes that numbered just over half of the entire population.

Again counterintuitively, the Central Election Commission (CEC) has introduced changes to increase people’s trust of the elections. CCTV cameras were introduced that stream video from polling stations, but they have been restricted in these elections, as embarrassingly the same cameras caught scores of old ladies and polling station workers jamming dozens of ballots into the boxes.

Falsification is not universal. In fact it is extremely limited to what Andreychuk dubs the “electoral sultanates” – a dozen or so notorious regions where the local leaders kowtow to Putin and deliver the required votes. The most infamous example is Chechnya, where the local president Rustam Kadyrov returned results of over 100% for the ruling party in the last election. The Autonomous Republic of Tatarstan also regularly delivers a 90% pro-government result.

A bne IntelliNews breakdown of the 2011 legislative elections shows very clearly the uneven distribution of voting between the fixed districts and those where the vote was largely free.

As the chart shows, in about two thirds of the regions United Russia’s support was under 50% and it was under 40% in half the regions. In Arkhangelsk oblast and Yaroslavl United Russia won only 30%.

United Russia won more than 50% of the vote in only 24 of Russia’s 85 regions, but it won over 80% of the vote in eight regions and almost 100% in Chechnya. Clearly the results were rigged to a significant degree in those 24 regions, but given that United Russia only scraped by with 49.3% of the total vote to win 238 seats those massively falsified votes from the eight 80%-plus regions were absolutely key to delivering the majority win for United Russia in 2011. At the same time, the 40%-plus that United Russia won in half the regions was enough to secure the majority of seats.

As an aside, the chart also shows the presidential election from that period and while there is a bump in the same eight regions the results suggest that support for Putin is much more evenly distributed over the whole country.  


The second chart is from the 2016 and clearly shows the cheating both in the eight “electoral sultanates” on the right of the chart where there is a huge spike where there shouldn't be one (the x-axis shows the percentage of those that voted for United Russia) but also very clearly shows the spikes in votes for United Russia on the round numbers. The red hatched area is the number of fake votes injected into the system, as determined by this statistical study of voting patterns.

The reason those spikes appear at the numbers that end with a “0” or a “5” is human nature: officials fixing the results can’t help themselves and round up to the nearest round number.

Interestingly, the chart shows that the share of voting for United Russia between zero and 50% is largely real. The first really big aberration comes at precisely 50% and after that the results are increasingly made up. The chart suggests in a “real election” United Russia is still the legitimate winner but clearly it falls well short of a simple majority.

The second chart is based on the principle that the numbers in the results from each polling station should be perfectly randomly distributed if the vote is fair and it is very easy to see if they are not. Fairground attraction owners use the same mathematical principle to see if their staff are stealing from the small change, as they tend to nick the £1 and 50p coins, which screws up the distribution.

Andreychuk says that there are about a dozen regions where the voting is relatively “clean” and the rest are fixed to some degree, but the “electoral sultanates” and their analogous territories in other regions make up the mass of rigged votes.

Many pundits have said this will probably be the last open election. One of the tactics that the opposition has used to force some measure of honesty on the election is to organise thousands of election observers to embarrass the authorities to abstain from blatant ballot stuffing. Andreychuk’s Golos was one of those organisations.

Under the new rules the voting will go on for three days, making it next to impossible to find enough observers to man every polling station. And the second change is electronic voting has been introduced in seven districts, which is totally impossible to supervise, says Andreychuk. Both these tactics were rolled and given a wet run in Belarus’ disputed August 9 elections last year.

Smart voting

Navalny’s smart voting is targeting the relatively clean races where there is a more or less genuine vote and the opposition candidates stand a real chance of winning.

Team Navalny are highlighting the battleground regions where there is a chance of defeating the United Russia candidate, which include: Moscow, St Petersburg, Khabarovsky Krai, Sverdlovsk, Saratov, Kirov and Novosibirsk regions; the Republic of Mari El and Kamchatka.

While the opposition candidates have little chance of significantly changing the result, the smart voting tactic has proved to be a thorn in the Kremlin’s side. As the Kremlin heavily relies on the eight electoral sultanates, by chipping away at the victories in the clean races the Kremlin will be forced to extend the cheating to more regions, but that will only undermine the legitimacy of the elections further – something which the Kremlin realises is a very dangerous thing to do.

“The main issue with the opponents of Smart Voting is that [the Kremlin] appears to have nothing smart, or not so smart but efficient, to offer as a viable alternative. Navalny decries them as moaning idlers. Smart Voting is designed as an act of civic disobedience, a voter flashmob, if you like. What it allows is to show that “non-systemic” opposition has a formidable constituency that can impact even the most farcical and illegitimate election,” says Leonid Ragozin, a well-known Russian journalist. “No matter whether it achieves anything at the polls (the Kremlin has installed multiple shields, including e-voting – a straightforward rigging tool), Smart Voting is already a success given the amount of effort spent on derailing it. The election is profoundly de-legitimised.”

The outlook for the next elections is dark. The main mechanism the opposition has had to ensure many of the votes are clean is to send thousands of observers to polling stations. Three-day voting makes it impossible to field enough observers to be effective and electronic voting is impossible to supervise. In the next elections the authorities will have carte blanche to make up the results as they see fit. The Kremlin will still have the problem of legitimacy and still need to win as many genuine votes as possible, but there will be next to no scrutiny and smart voting will no longer be able to deliver upsets. So this could well be Russia’s last hybrid election before autocracy takes over completely.