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Analysis & Opinion
13.10.09 Another Blow To Russian Democracy
By Roland Oliphant

Sunday’s local elections were one of unmitigated triumph for United Russia. From Moscow, where the ruling party consolidated its already overwhelming representation in the City Duma (going from 29 to 32 of the 35 seats in the assembly), to Derbent, the second-largest city in Dagestan, where the muscular support of the republic’s president helped the embattled incumbent Mayor Felix Kaziakhmedov see off a challenge from former republican Chief Prosecutor Imam Yaraliyev, United Russia reigned supreme.

But the victory comes at a price. Before the vote, every opposition party, from the well-established Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) and Liberal Democrats (LDPR), to the more marginal liberal parties like Yabloko and radical oppositionists like Solidarnost (who were unable to even register candidates for the Moscow vote), had complained of manipulation of the mass media and abuse of administrative resources by United Russia. Events on the polling day itself have proven so contentious that every single party – including United Russia – is threatening court action.

By far the most controversial vote took place in Derbent, Russia’s southernmost city in Dagestan. The Russian press reported that almost a third of polling stations did not open because members of the Election Committee simply did not show up to work, and that others were occupied by police to prevent residents from voting. There are even reports of OMON riot police using tear gas to disperse would-be voters.

The Kommersant daily drily called the events in Derbent “the use of technologies never before applied in our country.” And this was only the extreme of what appears to have been a systematic violation of electoral protocol by regional administrations under pressure to deliver a victory for United Russia. “I don’t think the Kremlin intervened at all this time,” said Nikolai Petrov, an expert on regional affairs at the Moscow Carnegie Center. “The regional authorities were allowed to do what they wanted.”

Much has been made of pressure from the center on regional authorities to produce a decent turnout for United Russia, and the events in Derbent were probably motivated by Dagestani President Mukhu Aliyev’s fears that he could lose his job if Kaziakhmedov did not win. But the incentive is now so ingrained that the Kremlin does not even have to issue an order anymore. “It’s an automatic result of the law according to which the party that wins the majority in a regional assembly gets to nominate the candidates for the governor’s office. So if you’re an incumbent governor it’s understandable that to get appointed, you have to make sure you have a majority in the assembly,” said Petrov.

Thus, in the regions where the administration is relatively weak, or there is some degree of political pluralism, the election results were far less contested, said Petrov. Lilia Shibanova, the executive director of the Golos NGO, which monitored the elections, agreed, citing Irkutsk as a region where “we saw black propaganda and so on, but nonetheless no kind of violations we saw elsewhere.”

In the region of Mari El, the Communists complained that they had to face down riot police and were not provided with accommodation for their campaign meetings. In Moscow, Vladimir Ulas, who headed the KPRF’s list in the city, told Kommersant that “information about violations is coming in a stream.” Almost everywhere parties complained of the abuse of absentee ballots and the rather old fashioned abuse of “carousel” voting, in which buses ferry volunteers from one polling station to the next to vote several times. Golos, which set up a hotline for reporting irregularities, received at least one report from LDPR observers who said they had witnessed cases of ballot stuffing.

The KPRF, LDPR and Yabloko have all said they will challenge the results in court. United Russia, not to be out done, is bringing a lawsuit complaining of 443 legal violations it says were carried out by the opposition. The Central Election Commission, in its turn, seems to have taken the side of United Russia, saying the elections went ahead without complications and calling the opposition’s claims “provocations.”

But here the commission is almost definitely being disingenuous. An exit poll conducted by VTsIOM, a state-owned pollster, put United Russia’s support in central Moscow at 45.2 percent, but in the event itself, United Russia was reported to have taken some 66 percent of the vote. VTsIOM’s General Director Valery Fyodorov tried to anticipated the discrepancy in a press release, citing the experimental use of SMS technology and saying that such differences are “normal,” because “the goal of the exit poll is not to check the work of electoral commissions, but to capture the general trends of the vote and report them to the public as soon as possible.” That may be so, but a 20 percent margin of error is well beyond the generally accepted standard, as some commentators have already pointed out.

Despite the outrage on the part of the politicians and certain elements of the press, the low turnout - in Moscow the authorities struggled to get 30 percent of the electorate to show up; in Derbent the official, possibly massaged statistics were 45 percent; Mari El produced a surprising 55 percent, which the Communists attribute to their dogged refusal to be intimidated – suggests either resignation to a pre-determined result or simple apathy on the part of the public. Riot police broke up a protest against the election results on Moscow’s Pushkin square on Monday evening, but the protesters numbered tens rather than hundreds.

And if the public is left (largely) unmoved by the apparently blatant manipulation of results, they were hardly motivated by the issues in the first place. The KPRF, which campaigned vigorously on an anti-crisis platform, did the best out of the opposition parties (it was the only one to get any seats in the Moscow City Duma, for example), but with the exception of Mari El, failed to bring great numbers to the ballot box.

“Normally, in a crisis, support for the ruling party would fall. That hasn’t so far happened, and I think that is because the government has been spending so much to maintain quality of life,” said Petrov. “But that is dangerous in the long term. If the government runs out of money, the drop is going to be sudden and deep. And it will take the popularity of the ruling party with it.”
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