The “smart voting” tactics promoted by anti-corruption blogger and opposition activist Alexei Navalny delivered a few successes in Russia’s regional elections held on September 13.
Opposition leader Sergei Boyko, who is part of the Navalny organisation, won the seat in the Siberian region of Novosibirsk, despite an energetic campaign by the ruling United Russia Party.
"This is the first victory of a Navalny office head," Ivan Zhdanov, director of the opposition politician's Anti-Corruption Foundation, said on Twitter. "It was in Tomsk where Navalny was poisoned."
In several dozen of the country's 85 regions, Russians voted for regional governors and lawmakers in regional and city legislatures as well as in several by-elections for national MPs.
The Kremlin was in trouble going into the elections as its proxy in the Duma, the United Russian party, had seen its popularity sink to a record low of 31% as polls opened. The Kremlin has already been struggling to contain popular protests in the Far Eastern region of Khabarovsk that are about to go into their third month, after the popular regional governor was removed on murder charges.
The local elections have been a test for Navalny’s protest voting technique, where they promote the candidate most likely to oust the United Russia Party, irrespective of their political allegiances. That means the opposition supported candidates from the ultra-nationalistic Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) and the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF).
The votes followed Navalny’s poisoning with Novichok following his visit to Tomsk on August 20, where he went to help organise voting in the elections.
Official early results showed pro-Kremlin politicians backed by Putin coasting to landslide wins to serve as the governors of the regions of Komi, Tatarstan, Kamchatka and more than a dozen others.
But Navalny’s supporters scored rare victories in city council votes in Novosibirsk, Russia’s third city by population, and the student town of Tomsk where United Russia, which dominates regional power, appeared to have lost its council majority.
“People are sick of the authorities. You can’t sit on the throne for 20 years, grab, steal endlessly, do all of this and go unpunished,” said Ksenia Fadeyeva, who won a council seat in Tomsk, as cited by Reuters.
Navalny supporter Andrei Fateev, 32, also won a seat in Tomsk, while Boyko looked set to win council seats in Novosibirsk.
“This completely destroys the whole myth about the 2% of liberals and that their “support is only among hipsters inside the Garden Ring road [in Moscow]”,” said Leonid Volkov, a close ally of Navalny, as cited by Reuters.
More than a thousand politicians, who were believed to be well placed to beat ruling party candidates, were included in the smart voting campaign, and the opposition mounted campaigns on their behalf.
In Tomsk, Fateev said United Russia appeared to have won only 12 out of 37 seats on the council after many candidates backed by the smart voting strategy had gone on to win.
Tatiana Doroshenko, a local election official, said she could not remember United Russia ever performing so badly in her 15 years as chairwoman of a district election commission in Tomsk.
“This is an awesome case example ... you can actually engage in politics and it’s not futile as it had seemed just so recently,” said Fateev, Reuters reported.
Andrey Turchak, United Russia’s general secretary, said the party had scored a “confident victory” in votes seen as a dry run for the even more important 2021 parliamentary elections.
The regional election was the first time early voting was used, allowing voters to vote online for two days before physical voting on September. The change in the rules is considered to offer an easy way to rig votes. An early voting system was also introduced in the massively falsified presidential election in Belarus, where incumbent Alexander Lukashenko claimed to have won by a landslide, sparking nationwide protests.
“As I suspected – and this was only logical, really – the authorities seem to have used whatever tricks they could to prevent second rounds in any of the 18 gubernatorial elex,” tweeted political analyst Andras Toth-Czifra. “This has been a consistent policy since the surprise electoral upsets in 2018 and even more so now with the pro-[Khabarovsk governor] Furgal protests. There was a lot of administrative meddling, disqualification, bribes, etc. Still there were rumours about possible 2nd rounds… These elections will further erode the "electoral legitimacy" that the Russian governing system has been based on. But this the Kremlin can still take if it doesn't lead to protests & those have been triggered by specific issues.”