September 10, 2019

Russia’s Local Elections: A Change of Mood but Not of Power

Alexei Nikolsky via ZUMA Wire/Scanpix
September 8, 2019, Moscow, Russia: Russian President Vladimir Putin casts his ballot at a polling station during Moscow city council elections September 8, 2019 in Moscow, Russia. The elections are considered a test the popularity of President Vladimir Putin after a crackdown on opposition protests in Moscow.
September 8, 2019, Moscow, Russia: Russian President Vladimir Putin casts his ballot at a polling station during Moscow city council elections September 8, 2019 in Moscow, Russia. The elections are considered a test the popularity of President Vladimir Putin after a crackdown on opposition protests in Moscow.

A sharp change of the electorate’s mood in a democracy governed by the rule of law should result in the change of political rulers following elections.

The regime of “collective Putin”, however, only imitates democracy while pursuing its own parallel reality. In Putin’s Russia, just as in Soviet times, state propaganda (especially on TV) is a reality show and elections serve only as displays of loyalty where the state and voters do not expect to actually change anything.

The mood of the common Russian people starts to change only when they truly become fed up with corruption, incompetence and worsening life conditions. Before the September 8th elections, this change of mood in the Russian electorate, particularly the Muscovites, had become far too obvious for the Kremlin to be simply ignored.

In July and August, weeks of mass protests in Russia’s capital resulted in the arrests of hundreds and the effective elimination of any real opposition candidates on the ballot including Alexey Navalny and Lyubov Sobol, among others. President Putin then drew parallels to France’s so-called “yellow jackets” in order to justify the brutal suppression of peaceful demonstrations that demanded freedom and democracy.

According to both unofficial and official Gallup polls, the popularity of United Russia, Putin’s party, was so low in Moscow (less than 25%) that its representatives – obviously following orders from the Kremlin – had to register for elections as “independent” candidates. The election’s outcome came as no surprise for the Kremlin. Putin’s party lost its suffocating majority (38 seats out of 45) in Moscow’s City Duma but managed to preserve a simple majority of votes (25 seats).

The loss of 13 seats is offset by the Communist Party’s (CP) win of the same number of seats. This will allow the previous power policy in Moscow to continue because Russia’s CP is part of the “loyal opposition” in Russia’s State Duma and is unlikely to play a different role in local governments. While the Kremlin was forced to accept the diversification of the Moscow City Duma composition (which is now being used to demonstrate that the elections were “democratic”), it remains nevertheless fully satisfied with the outcome since anti-Kremlin opposition candidates were prevented from joining the local governing body.

Even though United Russia also suffered defeats in Khabarovsk and Irkutsk, the party lost no governor posts, including in Saint Petersburg. Alexander Beglov, Putin’s ultra-loyalist who commands the president’s hometown, received almost two-thirds of the local votes despite being the epitome of stagnation. For example, just before the elections, Beglov let down an anxious public by failing to open three underground system stations which had been under construction for many years.

Finally, the “collective Putin” might be somewhat concerned about the change in Russian voters’ moods reflected in Putin’s declining popularity rating. Regardless of this concern, the Kremlin still holds a firm grip on Russia’s state and local levels while, most importantly, the real anti-Kremlin opposition remains toothless and incapable of producing (at least for now) anything other than mere decorative political “diversification”.

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