What to make of opposition blogger Alexei Navalny's unexpectedly strong result in the Moscow mayor election on Sunday, September 8? With over 98% of the votes counted Navalny received 27.37% against the incumbent Sergei Sobyanin's 51.15%, the election committee said on Monday, September 9.
Navalny's tally is a lot more than the 18-20% that polls were giving him going into the election, and Sobyanin's was a lot less than the 60% he was expected to win.
Moreover, the result puts the election within a hair's breadth of having to go to a second round. Navalny's camp are claiming the election fraud and ballot stuffing that is par for the course in a Russian election was sufficient to require a recount. Navalny's election campaign says its polls gave Sobyanin only 46% while Navalny got 35.6%.
"The exit polls undoubtedly show that there will be a second round," Navalny told journalists after announcing the results, according to video posted online by his campaign. "We call on Moscow city hall not to take any steps and falsify the results. We understand very well that they are tempted to add another eight or nine percent of the vote and make it look like a first-round victory."
Sobyanin's team predictably says there was nothing wrong with the result. "There was no significant complaints, problems, violations in Moscow," Lyudmila Shvetsova, Sobyanin's campaign manager said. "There was nothing that could compromise Muscovites' will and desire to participate in the mayoral election.
Still a test for the Kremlin
The first thing to be clear about is that the outcome was never in doubt: Sobyanin was always going to win and even if the vote goes to a second round, he is going to win that too.
The election is significant because it is one of the few electoral litmus tests for the strength of the opposition. And on this basis the high number is a huge success, as it suggests the opposition has, for once, managed to coalesce around an opposition figure and increases Navalny's legitimacy greatly; going into the vote, Navalny's problem was that while he plays an important role as an anti-corruption campaigner, he lacks political clout because he has a small base to work from.
However, digging a bit deeper and Navalny's score was probably boosted by the very low voter turnout: only 33% of Muscovites bothered to show up. It seems that given Sobyanin was such a shoo-in, "the couch was the real winner in this election," quipped one commentator. Sobyanin barely ran any campaign at all, concentrating instead on his duties (that were well covered in the press) to make himself look mayoral. But that was not enough to get his supporters - and thanks to the improvements he has made in the capital he has a real and strong base of support - to actually show up at the ballot box.
Navalny as the underdog ran what has been widely hailed as the "first western-style campaign" in Russia's modern history. He was on the streets and stump constantly in recent weeks. Excluded from the state-controlled airwaves, he concentrated his campaign on the internet, and that was fairly effective in the gizmo-loving Russian capital.
But most importantly, Navalny's supporters were committed to the cause and always likely to turn out in higher numbers come rain or shine. Had Sobyanin made more of an effort and got more of his supporters to show up, then Navalny's result would probably been closer to the poll scores.
And the winner is...
So who really "won" this poll from a moral perspective? Moscow is the home to the opposition and a hotbed of discontent. Here, Russian President Vladimir Putin scored by far his worst result in the national presidential elections in Moscow in 2012. Yet Sobyanin, despite being the establishment's candidate, won the election legitimately with a clear majority. Muscovites wanted someone with experience and proven ability to run their city, and Sobyanin is that man.
But it was also a real victory for Navalny, who is appealing a five-year jail sentence on corruption charges handed down in August. Some commentators have speculated that if he won more than 25% in this poll, he can't be jailed. The next few weeks will deliver a conclusion to this question. But given that he was convicted by a court and Putin has always played lip service to the rule of law in Russia, it seems highly likely that if the appeals court uphold the sentence, Navalny will have to do his time.
Sobyanin is also a winner, as he has won some real legitimacy. Without Navalny running, he would have been open to charges of being a stool pigeon for the Kremlin and as more protests are likely in the future, this could have caused serious problems further down the road. Ironically, Navalny's strong showing will actually strengthen Sobyanin's hold on his job and control over the city.
And the fact that the elections were held at all represents a step forward for democracy and a change in style for the Kremlin, which has become more concerned lately with the "democractic" side of its managed system.
Popular elections of regional heads were abolished under Putin's initiative in 2004 as a move to strengthen federal control over the regions following the Beslan school hostage crisis in the Northern Caucasus. And these elections were the first vote for a regional head (Moscow counts as a region in its own right) in eight years.
Clearly Sobyanin believed he needed to shore up his legitimacy with a snap election despite the fact that he still had two more years to serve under his pervious term.
"Muscovites don't want elections in two or three years, but now," Sobyanin said in a radio interview with Ekho Moskvy in late August. "I realized that if I leave everything to circumstance, after a while they'll consider me a coward."
As for the charges of ballot stuffing, these could well be true. It is widely believed (and there is evidence to support the view) that the Kremlin injected about 12% extra votes for the United Russia party in the December 2011 election, which sparked the whole protest movement. Likewise, Putin was handed an estimated 5% of extra votes in the presidential election.
The point of this ballot stuffing is not to win the respective elections - the same people would have been in charge without this electoral fraud - it is symbolic. United Russia needed a good majority to make the point they were clearly in charge. Putin needed to break into the 60s, instead of accepting the 50-something he actually won - to reassure the elites that he has a firm grip on power, thus nipping any resistance in the bud.
A scandal could follow over the alleged ballot stuffing in Sunday's election. However, it is unlikely because the form seems to be that the Kremlin can get away with adding a few percentage points to the results; it has already pushed it to the max with the 12% it forced through in the 2011 parliamentary elections.
However, given Moscow is the heart of the opposition movement, the Kremlin needs to win this election without electoral fraud, as that would be the most effective way to subdue the opposition. If it has been forced to resort to the kind of ballot stuffing of the past, then this election is a real defeat for the establishment.
But the bottom line and the real revolution from this result is the Kremlin has been caught napping and its complacency nearly caused it a big embarrassment.
Navalny has changed the terms of the game. Russia runs a "managed democracy" system. While most commentators concentrated on the "managed" part of this equation, the "democracy" part is just as important.
The whole point of why Navalny was let out of jail was to give these elections some real democratic legitimacy. Then the Kremlin uses its hold on the media etc. to manage the process to make sure their man wins - and wins in the first round.
But Navalny has come as close as you can in Russia to upsetting that process. From now on, the Kremlin will have to actually run campaigns and think about policies if they want to keep getting enough real votes so they don't have to start ram double-digit fixes down the throats of the electorate.
Sobyanin did a little of this. His campaign hijacked in the western democratic style several of Navalny's campaign ideas, so if judged purely in policy terms, the two candidates were almost identical. However, going forward, the Kremlin - if it is clever - will focus a bit more on running a real campaign and listening a little more closely to what the people want.
This isn't the end of authoritarianism in the Russian political system, but it is another step in the right direction.
Communist Party candidate Ivan Melnikov won 10.73% of the votes, while Yabloko's candidate Sergei Mitrokhin and Mikhail Degtyarev from LDPR received 3.54% and 2.87% respectively.
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