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In a first for Russia, Moscow agrees with locals that their election was rigged

Why We Wrote This

Westerners often assume that Russian politics is wholly corrupt. But the response to blatant ballot stuffing in Russia’s Far East shows some limits to what Russia will tolerate – and such fraud may be on its way out.

Yuri Maltsev/Reuters
A Russian Communist Party supporter holds a flag during a rally against vote rigging in the Primorsky Krai local election, and against pension reform, in the far eastern city of Vladivostok, Russia, on Sept. 22.

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It’s the first time in post-Soviet history that a local election has been overturned: In the far eastern province of Primorye, the Central Electoral Commission in Moscow last week declared the gubernatorial election flawed and the results annulled. Few uncritically accept that Russia under President Vladimir Putin is a normal, law-governed democracy. But critics are in two camps: those who insist that it’s a puppet show delivering preordained results; and those who argue that it at least creates spaces for opponents. Some reform has been under way since tens of thousands of Russians in 2011 protested widespread parliamentary election fraud, which was exposed by the use of cellphones and social media. But Primorye might be a warning of turbulence to come. This summer saw huge protests over plans to raise retirement ages, discontent that has expanded to a host of other popular grievances: corruption, rising taxes, unaccountable bureaucrats, and inadequate access to public services. “Public opinion surveys show that support for the authorities has declined substantially in recent months, even for Putin,” says Sergei Davidis, a human rights lawyer. “The whole system is under stress.”

It is fairly common to hear public complaints that fraud is boosting pro-Kremlin candidates in Russian elections. But it is exceedingly rare to see Moscow authorities lend solid support to such complaints.

That’s just what occurred in the far eastern province of Primorsky Krai, or Primorye, last week, after a “miraculous” last-minute voting surge in favor of the Kremlin-backed incumbent governor, Andrei Tarasenko, handed him a narrow victory over his Communist opponent, Andrei Ishchenko.

The Communists, who say this sort of thing happens to them all the time in distant regions, took their usual course of staging some street protests and filing a lawsuit in the local court. Even they were surprised when the Central Electoral Commission in Moscow declared that the election was marred by violations and the results must be annulled. It’s the first time in post-Soviet history that a local election has been overturned.

There will be no earthquake if, when the election is replayed in three months as the law requires, the governorship of the relatively quiet Pacific coast territory should pass from the ruling party, United Russia, to the loyal opposition Communist Party.

“It’s definitely a positive sign. I think Putin understands that Russia needs more political competition.” says Dmitry Babich, a columnist with the state-run Sputnik news agency. “Getting rid of the most obvious violations, like what happened in Primorye, is a necessary first step.”

Few people uncritically accept the official Kremlin assertion that Russia under Mr. Putin is a perfectly normal, law-governed democracy. But critics divide between two camps: those who insist that it’s a stage-managed puppet show designed to deliver preordained results; and those who argue that it at least creates spaces for opponents to have their public say, and might even evolve into a better, more representative system in time.

The unexpected cancellation of the Primorye election result seems likely to rekindle that debate.

For his part, Vladimir Putin is insisting that local authorities need to clean up their reputation for shameless meddling in elections.  Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said last week that “the president has stated many times: For him, legitimacy, purity, transparency, and fairness of the election is more important than the candidate whom he backs. Putin has been saying this for long and consistently, this is his principled stance and this is an absolute priority for the president.”

A certain amount of reform has been underway since tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets in 2011 to protest against widespread fraud in parliamentary elections, which was exposed by citizens using new technologies like cellphones to record violations and post them on social media.

Since then, cameras have been installed in all polling stations, and measures have been taken to improve voting transparency. Experts say that has reduced the incidence of some once-common types of fraud, such as ballot-stuffing, carousel voting, and direct intimidation. Local authorities still have leeway to change vote tallies as they are being reported, but that technique appears to have failed spectacularly in Primorye.

The electoral system has been tweaked to lower the threshold for parties to enter parliament, expand the number of official positions subject to popular election, and make it easier to start a party. But the system is still tightly managed from above, and unwanted candidates may be simply excluded from the ballot.

The upset in Primorye might well be a warning of turbulence to come. This summer saw a huge protest movement over plans to raise retirement ages for men and women, discontent which has expanded to a host of other popular grievances: corruption, rising taxes, unaccountable bureaucrats, and inadequate access to public services.

“Public opinion surveys show that support for the authorities has declined substantially in recent months, even for Putin,” says Sergei Davidis, a human rights lawyer and opposition activist. “The whole system is under stress, and that is why we saw the clumsy actions of the authorities in Primorye, which forced the election result to be cancelled.”

Grigory Melkanyants, co-chair of Golos, Russia’s largest grassroots election monitor, says the Kremlin has sent out strict instructions to local authorities to avoid obvious election manipulations, and the decision to overturn the troubled Primorye vote should be taken as a signal that they are serious about that.

“In future, organizers of elections will fear” having the result cancelled as has happened in the Primorye case, he says. “But there are other ways to influence the course of elections, and in many places the authorities have already adopted more subtle methods of control.”

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