Russia's liberal opposition is dead, long live the ruling party!

By bne IntelliNews September 14, 2015

bne IntelliNews -


Russia's liberal opposition parties failed to muster enough votes to pass the 5% threshold in nationwide regional elections for local posts held on September 13. The poor showing highlights the death of liberalism in Russia, which is gripped by a wave of nationalism stoked by President Vladimir Putin's stance on Ukraine.

The pro-Kremlin ruling party United Russia barely scraped 50% in parliamentary polls in 2011 and had been on course to do worse in the next general elections. 

However, as counting got underway - and despite low turnout and reports of voting violations including ballot stuffing - it was clear that United Russia was on course for a clean sweep,  prevailing in first results of various types of polls that took place in almost all of Russia's 85 regions. (Two North Caucasus republics did not participate, North Ossetia where the governor is appointed by Moscow, and Kabardino Balkaria, where the governor was elected in October 2014 after his predecessor resigned). 

The current fierce nationalist-patriotic mood keeps Putin’s popularity at all-time record highs of around 90%, despite the fact the economy has fallen into deep recession and real incomes have started to fall for the first time on his watch.

Still, the establishment hailed the elections as a success for Russian democracy, and while they are a major set back-back for the opposition they do reflect the mood of the people, who have clearly chosen to stand behind in Putin in his show-down with the West over Ukraine. 

'Democracy developing'

According to initial data, United Russia's showing was "rather satisfactory", its leader Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said. The results reflected voter preferences but also that Russian democracy is developing, Medvedev said, adding that the the elections "were held at a high competitive level".

Of the 83 participating regions, 21 elected governors and 11 elected local legislatures. More than 189,000 candidates ran for different posts ranging from governor to municipal deputies. The polls were also held in Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in March 2014 but is still recognised by most countries as being part of Ukraine.

According to preliminary results published by the Central Election Committee (CEC), United Russia candidates were set to win gubernatorial elections in the four Far East regions, Russia's earliest time zones, taking 50% of the vote in each.

In 4 regions out of 21 the acting governors were winning as counting continued. United Russia kept its lead in most regions, its worst showing being 45.16% in Novosibirsk in Siberia. In the Irkutsk region, also in Siberia, no candidate had won more than 50% after 99% of ballots were counted, requiring a run-off election.

Low turnout, violations reported

The polls were the first since the start of an economic crisis triggered by a global slump in oil prices and Western sanctions imposed over Russia's actions in Ukraine.

They were also the last before Russia elects a new State Duma, the lower chamber of parliament, in September 2016. The last Duma elections in 2011 drew allegations of widespread rigging that sparked a wave of mass anti-government protests across Russia.

Turnout this time was patchy, however, While the Kemerovo coal mining region posted a record turnover of 83.51%, its highest since 2001, turnout elsewhere was generally around 20-30%, Igor Lebedev, a deputy speaker of the Russian State Duma lower parliament house, told TASS news agency.

While the CEC said it had received just 60 complaints over the entire election campaign, multiple violations were registered on voting day by independent election watchdogs.

Only in one region, Kostroma, did the polls go ahead with participation of opposition members openly critical of Putin. Various violations were observed in the region, including piles of already filled in ballot papers found at one polling station, media reported. Police also stormed the local offices of the Otkrytye Vybory (Open Elections) organisation in Kostroma saying it was the scene of a murder and had to be vacated.

Communists are back

The polls did more than simply underscore the country's pro-Kremlin political current, experts said.

"It is evident that the United Russia is winning the elections, but it is also clear that one of the results of these polls is that the Communist Party is regaining the [status] of the main opposition force," said Konstantin Kostin, the head of Russia’s Foundation for Civil Society Development. And in a small diversification of the pro-Kremlin line, another pro-presidential party Just Russia also showed good results, Kostin said.

But a key development in the polls is the situation on the liberal flank. According to latest preliminary results, these parties could not overcome the mandatory 5% threshold to take seats in the regional legislatures. The same threshold applies to national elections too.

Manifesto void

Meanwhile, most leading candidates in the polls did not publish manifestos, the Moscow Times reported, citing the Petersburg Politics think tank. Only five acting governors published original electoral manifestos, it found in the run-up to the vote. Those published mostly focused on previous achievements and promised stability instead of development, the think tank said in a report. "Some of the manifestos are written in such a way as though the candidates have already won the elections," it said.

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