United Russia makes way for independents in a bid to retain loyalist dominance in Russian regional elections

Russia’s regional and local elections in September will be a major test for the Putin regime, and it appears that his United Russia party is being abandoned in many regions as more loyalists run as independents. Reports also highlight activities designed to try to keep genuine competitors off the ballot.

The elections on September 8th will see 16 governors elected – many of whom have been appointed by Putin mid-term. In addition, 14 regions and the City of Moscow will select legislative assemblies and 21 other cities will choose municipal councils.

The gloss has come off United Russia after President Putin’s public opinion highpoint of 2014 and the annexation of Crimea. Pension reforms, corruption and even the expansion of rubbish dumps have all proved massively unpopular and the party is currently polling at around 35% nationwide – far below the 50% or more they secured in Duma (Parliament) elections three years ago. In key cities support might be as low as one in four voters.

Putin himself ran as an independent in the Presidential election last year and the vast majority of regional governors will be doing the same in order to keep the United Russia brand off the ballot. How much this will fool voters is open to debate.

There is also a switch to boost the proportion of single mandate constituencies in many council areas and a lessening of the number of party list seats. This too will allow loyalists to be elected as independents rather than relying on the United Russia label. This move has been unpopular with party apparatchiks however, as they have seen their chances of advancement fall dramatically.

But it might only be a short-term fix for the Kremlin. The next Duma elections are due in 2021 and by then President Putin will need to have a plan for securing a loyalist majority.

Putin’s strategy for regional governors has changed over the past cycle. More and more are being appointed from areas far from the region they will be administering. Perhaps this is a way of preventing the establishment of local power-bases or of testing people out for more senior ministerial appointments in the future. But it means that appointees have little in the way of local support when they have to face the voters.

Various tactics appear to be in use to ensure that governors and others face little real challenge in September. According to RFE/RL, opposition parties such as the Communists, LDPR and A Just Russia are declining to nominate candidates even in areas of strength, thus giving the Putin supported candidate a free run. Any other name on the ballot paper will be a token opponent to give a fig leaf of credibility to the contest.

In other areas there are claims that loyalist candidates are being put on the ballot paper thanks to false signatures and opposition candidates are finding it tough to gather their own signatures due to violence and intimidation.

Opposition leader Alexei Navalny has released a video purporting to show such a ‘signature factory’ in a local administration building.

Opposition candidates are also said to be finding their path to registration quite literally blocked as fake candidates are summoned to stand in front of them in queues to register and ‘terrorist threats’ are declared to prevent candidates having access to local administration buildings.

What will happen during the campaign period and on election day will largely not be visible. As is common with sub-national elections in most countries, international election observers have not been invited to view these contests. In addition, Russia has adopted a new law on domestic election observation which largely denies established and independent groups the ability to participate. Instead, a single ‘citizens chamber’ has been created in each area, made up of all NGOs and civic society organisations in the region. In reality, this means that the chamber is dominated by state employees and is not at all independent. OSCE observation of these chambers in the 2018 Presidential election (a mission of which I was a part) found that its members were not interested in proper observation and they were simply there to prevent genuine groups having access to polling stations.