Doppelgängers

Whether it be jumping on a bandwagon or seeking to mislead the electorate, Ukraine has taken the lead in doppelgänger candidates causing confusion. But this year’s elections were not the first use of such underhand tactics and India, Russia, the UK and USA have all seen variations of this phenomenon.

Jumping on the Bandwagon

At the recent parliamentary elections in Ukraine, the Servant of the People (Sluha Narodu) party of new president Volodymyr Zelensky won an overall majority with 254 out of 424 seats contested. It was the first time in the history of the country since independence that a single party had got a majority in parliament, but this was hardly the most unexpected outcome. Zelensky had won more than 73% of the vote in the second round of the presidential poll four months earlier and, whilst a lot of that vote might have been against his opponent rather than for him, there was no doubt that Zelensky and his party were massively popular. So it came as no surprise when a lot of people sought to jump on the bandwagon to gain an advantage.

Servant of the People was a political party formed by Zelensky and named after his TV show. In that production he plays a history teacher who unwittingly becomes president after a rant about corruption is illicitly videoed by his students and goes viral. The naif as president concept became hugely popular and Zelensky rode it into office with a campaign based on TV and online campaigns. In his inauguration speech he called for early parliamentary elections (as well as fundamental changes to remove immunity for elected politicians and changes to the voting system). Despite a court challenge, these snap elections happened and Servant of the People was in prime position.

Servant of the People was not the only new party. The Voice (Holos) party also appeared on the ballot paper. This was the creation of popular musician Svyatoslav Vakarchuk. He had talked about standing in the presidential election but chose not to in a move widely seen to be co-ordinated with Zelensky. In the event of a hung parliament it was expected that The Voice Party would be likely to align with Servant of the People. As with Servant of the People, The Voice fielded a slate comprised entirely of political newcomers. No sitting or former MP was running as a candidate for either party.

 

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A polling station in Kherson district set up for the 2019 Parliamentary elections

 

Ukraine has a mixed voting system for Parliamentary polls (although this is the subject of one of the changes proposed by the President). Around half of all MPs are elected from party lists. The remainder are elected from single mandate districts using first past the post. It was in these districts that closer contests and electoral malpractice were expected as they pitched incumbents against representatives of the new parties.

Servant of the People and The Voice were so popular that many people sought to imply their candidacies were part of these movements even when they were not. This was impossible to achieve on the national vote where lists were submitted by registered parties only. However in the single mandate districts OSCE/ODIHR found 79 candidates in 55 districts who used the name Servant of the People to run against the candidate officially nominated by that party. (In addition, other candidates campaigned with colours, logos and slogans similar to Servant of the People.) The way these candidates got the name Servant of the People onto the ballot paper was usually by claiming to be employed by an organisation of that name, of which there are currently 44 according to Ukraine’s registry of legal entities. In addition, the name Holos was used by five independent candidates in single mandate districts and in one case each the names of Opposition Platform for Life, Opposition Bloc and European Solidarity were used.

Servant of the People complained to the Central Electoral Commission who decided that the reference to employment places which coincided with the name of the party would be removed from ballot papers in some cases. However it is not clear how many cases this applied to and whether or not ballot papers were re-printed.

One candidate who was particularly put out by the decision by Servant of the People to run entirely new candidates was a sitting MP from the Bloc Petro Poroshenko (which re-named itself European Solidarity for the elections) faction who, when Volodymyr Zelensky announced his intention to run for President, left his faction and became a cheerleader for the man who would become the new President. But he was declined the opportunity to run as an official Servant of the People candidate. This did not stop him trying to imply he represented the President’s party however. His campaign literature made frequent references to the party and president and even featured (genuine) photographs of him standing alongside Zelensky. Voters, however, were not to be fooled and he lost his seat to the official Servant of the People candidate.

It is impossible to say whether these cases were all bandwagon jumpers seeking to cash in on the popularity of Servant of the People or whether some were in fact attempts at spoiler candidates initiated by electoral opponents. The suspicion is that they were mostly the former, but Ukraine has a history of another form of doppelgänger, the ‘clone candidate’.

Clone Candidates

The most well known of these clone candidates is Yuriy Tymoshenko. Mr Tymoshenko stood in the presidential contest in March as a self-nominated (independent) candidate. He revelled in the attention he received because he happened to share a name with the long-established candidate (and former Prime Minister) Yulia Tymoshenko. The similarity was not confined to their family name and first name. Both of their fathers had the name Volodymyr and so, in the Ukrainian fashion, they had similar patronymics – Volodymyrovitch for Yuriy and Volodymyrivna for Yulia. When asked about this apparent coincidence, Yuriy Tymoshenko claimed that he had announced his candidacy long before his near namesake and claimed to be a serious runner. No one believed this statement and his limited campaign material appeared in the same colours and style as his more popular namesake and used the name Y.V. Tymoshenko (Ю́ В Тимоше́нко in cyrillic script). Yuriy Tymoshenko was a spoiler, or technical, candidate aiming to draw some votes away from Yulia Tymoshenko. This was helped by the ballot papers listing candidates in alphabetical order, something unchanged despite a court challenge from Yulia Tymoshenko. In the event, Yuriy Tymoshenko won some 0.62% of the vote. This was not enough to make a difference to the outcome of the contest – Yulia Tymoshenko came third with 13.4% and was 2.55% behind the second placed candidate – but was almost certainly far more than he would have gained on his own merits. Of the 39 candidates on the ballot paper, 26 who did little or no campaigning (like Yuriy Tymoshenko) won between 0.01% and 0.17% of the vote.

 

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Ballot paper for the 2019 Ukraine Presidential election showing both Yuriy Tymoshenko and Yulia Tymoshenko

 

It is impossible to be certain whether Yuriy Tymoshenko’s candidacy was his own idea or whether he was inspired or funded by other electoral opponents of Yulia Tymoshenko. In limited interviews he claimed to be standing entirely on his own initiative. However in the paperwork required for candidacy he declared an annual income of the equivalent of $10,000 against a deposit required for candidacy of $92,000.

Clone candidates existed in Ukraine before Yuriy Tymoshenko. In 2016 UKROP candidate Oksana Valentynivna Tomchuk was opposed in the 27th constituency in the city of Dnipro by near namesakes Oksana Ivanivna Tomchuk (who also claimed to be a member of UKROP in her biography), Oksana Valeriivna Tomchuk and Oksana Hrygorivn Tomchuk.

The concept continued into the parliamentary elections. OSCE/ODIHR found 152 candidates with 69 similar or identical names standing in 42 single mandate districts. Police opened 46 investigations and the observation mission estimated that nine of the contests could have been affected by the phenomenon in that a clone candidate gained more votes than a similarly named candidate lost by.

In constituency number 25 Andriy Valeriyovych Bohdan was standing and his biography mentioned a connection to Servant of the People. Coincidentally, President Zelensky’s chief of staff is called Andriy Bohdan. Except he wasn’t running for Parliament anywhere and his patronymic is Yosypovych, not Valeriyovych. The official Servant of the People candidate, Maksym Buzhansky won the seat.

In constituency 92 in Uzhyn there were four candidates called Guzdenko with the first name of either Viktor or Vitaliy. Two had the same patronymic of Ivanovych. There are also three Oleksandr Ferenets.

In constituency 33 in Kryviy Rih, there were two Olha Volodymyrivna Babenkos. One was standing on behalf of Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna party and the other was self-nominated. In the same constituency there was also a Mykola Yuriyovich Kolesnik and a Mykola Yuriyovich Kolesnyk.

In constituency 38 in Novomoskovsk, Dnipropetrovsk region, there was Vladislav Borodin from Servant of the People and Volodymyr Borodin, a self-nominated candidate, as well as two Vadym Nesterenkos.

Finally, in constituency 133 in Odesa, there were four people named Baranskiy — Viktor, Vitaliy, Vitaliy, and Ihor. The first two were candidates from the ideologically similar but politically separate Opposition Platform and Opposition Bloc, respectively. There were also Gontaruk and Goncharuk (both self-nominated), and two Artem Dmytruks, including one representing the Servant of the People party.

 

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Voter information posters on display at a polling station in Kherson district during the 2019 Ukraine parliamentary elections

 

Doppelgängers are not limited to Ukraine. In the UK there was a problem with candidates standing with party names designed to mimic other parties. One persistent candidate was Richard Huggett who stood in the 1994 European Parliamentary elections in the Devon and East Plymouth single member seat under the label of ‘Literal Democrat’. Mr Huggett eventually polled 10,203 votes, far more than the 700 vote majority of the Conservative candidate over the genuine Liberal Democrat. In the 1997 general election, Mr Huggett sought to stand under the name ‘Gerald Maclone’ in the Winchester constituency against sitting MP Gerald Malone. He was prevented from doing so but then stood with the label ‘Liberal Democrat – Top Choice for Parliament’. In an ensuing by-election in the seat he stood again under the ‘Literal Democrat’ label. Throughout, Huggett claimed that he was not acting on behalf of anyone other than himself and his antics, and similar undertaken by others, were only prevented by the 1998 Registration of Political Parties Act which stops candidates standing under labels which may confuse voters.

 

The Indian elections of 2014 present probably the largest single gathering of clone candidates. In one seat in Bilaspur district in the central state of Chhattisgarh no fewer than five of the 35 candidates were named Lakhan Sahu. In another, ten candidates shared the same name. The use of clone candidates might have less of an impact in a country where there are low levels of literacy and where many voters rely on party symbols to locate their chosen candidate. However there can even be similarity between symbols of candidates with the same name. In the seat of Maval in Maharashtra there were two candidates called Shrirang Barne and three named Laxman Jagtap with suspicions that each ‘real’ candidate had recruited at least one clone of their main opponent to confuse matters. The genuine Barne had the electoral symbol of a bow and arrow whilst his namesake was represented by an arrow only. The three Jagtaps were represented by a teacup, a cap and a helmet.

 

Shadow Parties

In Russia the concept of ‘shadow parties’ developed in 2003 and have been in existence ever since. The State Duma (Parliamentary) elections of that year were held at a time when Vladimir Putin was in his first term and the parliamentary elections were the first big test of his leadership. He was the head of the United Russia party but he faced genuine callanges from both the right and left, from the Communist Party and from the Liberal Democrats (now re-branded as LDPR but still led by firebrand nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky). And so Rodina was created, allegedly at the instigation of the Kremlin, to leach votes away from these two threats. They used the same symbolism and imagery as the Communists and many of the nationalist policies of the Liberal Democrats, and eventually gained 37 seats in the legislature.

It is worth repeating how shaky Putin’s grasp on power could have been in those days if he had not overseen the triumphant return of an overwhelming United Russia bloc. Russia demands a strong leader and strong leaders control parliament. In the event, United Russia won 37.6% of the votes in the national list element of the elections and just 24% in the cosntituencies, but this was enough for 223 seats overall due to the splitting of the vote. The Communists won 52 seats and the Liberal Democrats 36 seats. Had Rodina not stood, it is highly likely that the Duma result would have been far more balanced and United Russia may not have held an overal majority.

That was more than 15 years ago. But the practice of shadow parties continues. Even in the 2018 presidential election – one which Putin was certain from the outset to win and where turnout was seen as the big concern – there was a field of eight allowed. As well as the real Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), the Communists of Russia (KR) were on the ballot – a party with much of the same imagery, the same idolatry of historic figures (maybe a little more Stalin than Lenin) and the same policy proposals. Every vote for KR was a vote that might otherwise go to KPRF. And this time Vladimir Zhirinovsky and the LDPR had to contend with Sergey Baburin, an eccentrically coiffured former MP with the wonderful ability to conjure nomination signatures from every district and region despite never actually having any activists in place to gather them.

At the same time, Putin’s campaign material looked strikingly similar to a lot of other posters on display on billboards around the country. But far from being mirrored by another candidate or party, the incumbent president had the same colour scheme and design as the official central election commission and so every one of their millions of posters could be taken at first glance to be one for the sitting president.

 

Spoiler candidates

In the USA it might not have been shadow parties that were used, but many elections have been swung by the existence of third party candidates with similar policies to one of the main players who have been given a mysterious boost by supporters of the other.

In ‘Gaming the Vote’, William Poundstone relates the story that John Dendahl, chairman of the New Mexico Republican Party, quietly offered “more than $100,000” to the Green Party if they would run candidates in NM’s first and second Congressional Districts. The Greens were relatively strong in New Mexico and had already been spoilers in local races. The difference was that the Republicans were now willing to pay cash for services that had previously been free.

Poundstone also cites the June 2006 special election for the Congressman from California’s 15th district, where Republican Brian Bilbray was a ‘foaming-at-the-mouth anti-immigration hawk who supported building a fence clear from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico’. William Griffith, a running as an independent using $2000 of his own money, claimed to be even more anti-immigrant than Bilbray. Then something odd happened. Phone calls started urging voters to vote for Griffith. Radio ads too. Griffith didn’t know who was behind them. Both later turned out to have been funded by Democratic candidate Francine Busby.

 

Legal changes in the UK have shown that it is legislatively possible to prevent parties with similar names or candidates standing under labels designed to confuse. However courts and electoral commissions across the world have proved reluctant to interfere in cases where candidates with similar names choose to stand against each other, regardless of their motivation or provenance. Party names and symbols can help to lessen the confusion, as can active campaigning by the ‘real’ candidate. But even in obvious cases, it is still possible for enough voters to be confused that they cast their vote for the spoof candidate and, in tight contests, this can be enough to make the difference.

Ukraine’s President gets what he wants out of Parliamentary polls but wants more

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A polling station in the Kherson region set up for voting in the Parliamentary elections

Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky got exactly what he wanted out of last weekend’s parliamentary elections – an overall majority for his Servant of the People party (Sluha Narodu), a good showing for other newcomers Holos (led by rock star Svyatoslav Vakarchuk) and the ousting of many of the oligarchs who have occupied seats in the Verkhovna Rada seemingly as of right for many years. Now he wants more and is seeking to bring forward local elections to this autumn.

Zelensky won the Presidency in April with 73% of the vote in the run-off against incumbent Petro Poroshenko. In his inauguration speech he immediately called for early elections to the country’s parliament. As a newcomer to the political scene – his experience until then had been as a comedian, TV producer and star of the Servant of the People show in which he played a school teacher who unexpectedly becomes President – he had no official support in the Rada and had no means of getting legislation through or enforcing his choices for many of the key positions running the country.

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A poster showing the party list and manifesto for Petro Poroshenko’s European Solidarity party on display at a polling station in the Kherson region

The challenge for Zelensky going into these elections was exactly how popular was he? Winning 73% of the vote in the run-off would indicate considerable popularity, but he only gained 30% in the first round and it was widely expected that he would need to form a coalition in order to govern. Most commentators assumed that the bulk of the second round votes came from those voting against the incumbent rather than positively for Zelensky. 

The Ukrainian electoral system was also stacked against him. Roughly half the seats are awarded on the basis of a national party list system – where Servant of the People could be assumed to do quite well. But the remainder would be awarded to the winners of first past the post single member constituencies. And many of the incumbents were well entrenched local oligarchs including factory and media owners and other local powerbrokers. In contrast, Servant of the People were putting forward completely new faces, many of whom were not even local to the districts they were seeking to represent. Whilst international election observers had not seen a great scale of electoral malpractice in the presidential poll, it was assumed that in these single mandate constituencies there would be more scope for bribery and other electoral malfeasance. Could Zelensky and his party turn their presidential ‘against the system’ message into a winning strategy for the Rada and overcome such barriers?

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A polling station in the Kherson region on Election Day

Well it turned out that they could do so in spades. The party not only topped the list vote, but won a majority of the single member seats too. Long time incumbents were unceremoniously defeated by political naifs and, even though OSCE/ODIHR and others reported instances of bribery, it appears that voters were savvy enough to take the cash or foodstuffs on offer and then vote for Servant of the People candidates anyway. Servant of the People won 16 out of 17 seats in Dnipropetrovsk, 8 out of 9 in Kyiv Oblast, 12 out of 14 in Kharkiv, and all 13 in Kyiv city. (1)

In the list vote, Servant of the People won in every region except three. In the far eastern regions bordering the rebel controlled areas of the Donbas, the Russia supporting Opposition Platform – For Life topped the poll and in Lviv region in the West it was Holos (Voice) that came top. But Servant of the People performed strongly in these too and came first in the remaining 22 regions.

Across the country, the list results were:

  • Servant of the People 43.2% 124 seats
  • Opposition Platform – For Life 13.1% 37 seats
  • Batkivshchyna (the party of Yulia Tymoshenko) 8.2% 24 seats
  • European Solidarity (the party of former President Poroshenko) 8.1% 23 seats
  • Holos 5.8% 17 seats

No other party won more than 5% and therefore did not exceed the threshold to win representation, although six other parties (2) gained more than 2% and so will receive some state funding for their activities.

In the single mandate constituencies, 

  • Servant of the People won 130 seats
  • Opposition Platform – For Life won 6 seats
  • European Solidarity won 2 seats
  • Batkivshchyna won 2 seats
  • Holos won 3 seats
  • Opposition Bloc won 6 seats
  • Svoboda won 1 seat
  • Self Reliance won 1 seat
  • and there were 48 independents and others elected

And so overall Servant of the People hold 253 of the 424 Rada seats (some 26 seats were not contested this time as they fall within Crimea and the Donbas areas which are not in government control).

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Defaced political posters in the Kherson region the day before Parliamentary elections

The scale of the transformation of the Rada cannot be over-stated. More than 300 of the MPs elected last week are new faces and not a single member on the government benches has served before. In one example, in the south-eastern Zaporizhzhya region, 29-year-old Serhiy Shtepa, a wedding photographer, defeated 80-year-old millionaire Vyacheslav Boguslayev, the owner of engine maker Motor Sich PJSC.

The elections were assessed positively overall by international observers including OSCE/ODIHR. They were competitive and respected fundamental freedoms with the voting and tabulation processes being assessed as transparent and smooth. Inevitably, it was not an error-free process and the country still has some improvements that could be made, but this was a general thumbs-up for these polls. The international community has also welcomed the results as being a positive mandate for continued reform.

 

At no time in Ukraine’s post-Soviet history has one party controlled a majority of the seats in the Rada. Such control now will allow Zelensky considerable leeway to mould the country in his image. But most commentators are still wondering what that image will look like. The President has made statements about wanting to end the war in the East, but Russia and the rebels are refusing meaningful engagement. A deal for a prisoner swap involving the sailors held by Russia since the Kerch Strait incident fell apart at the last minute as they had their incarceration period extended and the Ukraine court postponed a hearing to decide the fate of a Russian blogger. More recently, Ukraine has seized a Russian ship that it claims was involved in the blockade of the Kerch Strait. It appears that Zelensky is happy to ratchet up tensions with his biggest neighbour in order not to appear weak, although this might also make a deal more likely.

Domestically, Zelensky has made it clear that he wants to see the de-oligarchisation of the state. But his relationship with his patron (and oligarch) Ihor Kolomoisky is still unclear. Is this just a change of oligarchs with influence or is this a genuine clear out? Figures close to Kolomoisky such as Andriy Bogdan, who now serves as the president’s chief of staff, are heavily involved in policy-making and running the presidential administration. Ties to the former owner of PrivatBank may cast a shadow over Sluha Narodu’s fight against corruption, an issue many Ukrainians believe should be the top priority of the next parliament.

The mixed electoral system would seem to be on its way out. Zelensky has said that he wants to move to a single national list system – albeit an open list where voters can promote their favourite candidates rather than having to accept the order set by parties. It has also been suggested that there would be no threshold – leading to a plethora of small factions. Just before these polls the Rada passed a version of this system which the President said he was not happy with. It is set to come into force for the next parliamentary polls, but may well be changed again before that time.

And in order to complete his hold on power, Zelensky is turning his attention to local government. He has the power to dismiss figures such as the mayor of Kyiv, the former boxer Vitaliy Klitschko, but he also wants to see local elections brought forward. These are due to be held in October next year, but the President has said he wants to hold them this autumn instead. He faces some opposition in the form of the country’s constitution which mandates that local polls must be held on a fixed five year timetable. Changing the constitution would require two votes of the Rada in separate sessions, indicating that next spring is the earliest that polls could happen. But with a compliant parliament and a definite will, it seems likely that Zelensky will get his way even if it means backdating a constitutional change or holding local elections both this autumn and next.

Zelensky has been explicit in his backing for a western facing, pro European and pro NATO stance, but it is clear that the country will not become a member of NATO for many years yet. The alliance is unwilling to take on a new member which is de facto at war with a neighbouring state. Previous Ukrainian governments have also traded on their conflict with Russia, believing they can get away with a lot so long as they are battling the West’s main opponent. How long this situation can be taken for granted (if it ever could) is also in doubt. 

Zelensky will also be trying to change a system where a majority of voters may not actually support his ideology. According to a strategist for Holos:

“Most of Sluha Narodu’s voters did not support the president’s party because of its pro-market agenda, but because they expect the new ruling party to cut utility prices, raise salaries and improve social conditions in general.”

Despite his resounding success, it is clear that Zelensky will have to live up to the expectations of his backers if he is to have any hope of a second term. The Ukrainian people have shown how tired they are of the oligarch system. It will be a very difficult task to unpick it, but that must be the aim if Zelensky is not to prove a flash in the pan.

 

Notes:

(1) There was an issue with clone candidates who claimed to be part of Servant of the People but were not official candidates. OSCE/ODIHR believes that such candidates distorted the result in as many as nine constituencies. I will be writing about this as part of the wider ‘imposter’ phenomenon in elections at another time.

(2) The six other parties to gain more than 2% in the list vote and therefore be eligible for state funding are:

  • Radical Party of Oleg Lyashko
  • Strength and Honour
  • Opposition Bloc
  • Ukrainian Strategy of Groysman
  • Party of Shariy
  • Svoboda

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. 

US Supreme Court denies ability to intervene in gerrymandering cases

The US Supreme Court has ruled that they cannot decide in cases of alleged partisan gerrymandering. That gives the green light to politicians to draw electoral boundaries in such a way as to favour their party.

Although different rules apply in the different states, in simple terms electoral boundaries in the US, particularly congressional districts, are drawn by state legislators based on the most recent census. The numbers in each district have to be roughly equal but the boundaries are up to local decision making.

Why does it matter how the boundaries are drawn? Because each community is different and people of like mind tend to be more likely to live near each other. So you have areas which are more Republican and areas which are more Democratic. Drawing the boundaries in a different way can skew the results of an election. The Electoral Reform Society has produced a graphic which neatly illustrates this problem.

The US has long had a history of politically partisan boundary delimitation. The term gerrymandering was created there. The team at FiveThirtyEight have come up with a number of different examples of how the extent of gerrymandering could affect the US House of Representatives.

There are five states which have put in place rules to (largely) protect against partisan boundary drawing. But others leave it up to their legislators. Two such are North Carolina and Maryland and these were the cases before the Supreme Court whose decision was made public today.

This is not the end of the matter. First state courts might choose to get involved in the issue and have the right to do so even though the Supreme Court has spoken. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled last year that the congressional map drawn by the Republican legislature in 2011 ran foul of the state constitution, saying that the map violated the state’s guarantee of “free and equal” elections. They chose to redraw the map themselves. As many as a dozen other states have similar provisions in their constitution. In addition, states can pass their own laws that would require boundaries to be drawn in a non-partisan manner, either through their own legislature or through a referendum.

But in the short term this (non) decision by the Supreme Court could open the floodgates for more state legislatures to take a radical view of boundary drawing.

Georgia proposes move to list based elections with no threshold in bid to end protests

Georgia’s ruling party has said that it will move to change national elections to a purely list based system in a bid to stop protests which have gripped the country.

The current system is a mixed one with 73 MPs elected from single member constituencies in a two round system where the winner needs more than 50% support. In addition, 77 MPs are elected through a national list with a 5% threshold. The lists seats are allocated purely on the basis of the proportional vote and do not take account of constituency seats won. This system was only put in place before the elections in 2012 and opponents believe it gives a disproportionate advantage to the ruling party which holds 115 of the 150 seats on 48% of the vote.

The next elections in Georgia are due in 2020 and Bidzina Ivanishvili, the head of the ruling Georgian Dream party, has said that that no threshold should be applied to the list system. Abolishing a threshold would encourage small parties and create a fractured parliament with many different factions. It is a move likely to favour strong coherent government parties and enable them to keep control even if they see a drop in overall support. Had the 2016 election been held on a pure list vote with no threshold then there would likely have been ten factions elected to Parliament rather than the current four (and just two factions gained representation in the 2012 elections).

However protesters have said that this concession is not enough for them to end their action. They are calling for the interior minister to step down as well as the release of those arrested on June 20th – the first night of protests. 

There is also anger directed against Russia after a visit by Russian politicians during the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy. Russia continues to have troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two areas recognised by the majority of the international community as Georgian territory.

Theresa May’s meeting with Putin and the idea of a new normal (UPDATED following the meeting)

UPDATE 28/6/19 The meeting happened and here is the read out from the Prime Minister’s spokesperson.

Confirmation that a UK-Russia meeting will be held on the margins of the G20 in Japan this weekend in a bid to re-set the fractured relationship between the UK and Russia is encouraging and will be welcomed by many, but there are a lot of issues to get past if any sort of regular relationship is to be re-established. If temperatures do thaw then it will be time to get used the idea of ‘a new normal’.

At the top of the agenda, there needs to be some resolution to the issue of the Skripal poisoning in Salisbury. Talks must begin there in order to satisfy not just the UK, but Russia too, Russia has been impacted by the sanctions that were imposed by a wide range of Western countries after the poisoning, perhaps the most tangible achievement of the entire Theresa May premiership. As time passes these sanctions will start to pale as Russia finds a way around them and targeted individuals are replaced. The decision this week by the Council of Europe to readmit Russia will be seen as the first major crack in the dam. But for the moment they are still having an impact and Russia wants them gone.

Talks on Salisbury won’t necessarily produce the outcome that May wants. Against all the evidence, Russia has consistently denied any involvement in the poisoning and won’t change their tune now. But there may be a chance to reach a form of words that moves things forward. A pledge by Russia to take action to prevent any such attacks happening in the future, perhaps.

But the strains in the relationship are not just about Salisbury. Russian cyber attacks on elections and other state institutions are a concern, as is aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere.

The cyber attacks issue may reach the same conclusion as Salisbury. Russia will continue to deny involvement in the face of evidence to the contrary. But whilst it is pretty clear that Russia has developed the capability to use cyber as a weapon at many levels, it has used a range of arms-length companies to do much of this work and no longer totally controls what is happening in the field. The Russian Federation has long been gripped by a power vertical, a top down control of everything that happens, but that control has shattered in a few key areas. Introducing deniability in special operations is one such, as former state officers are setting themselves up to conduct clandestine projects at the request of the Kremlin. And Russia is not the only country where extensive cyber capabilities have been developed. Although Chinese targets tend to be of a different nature, it is clear that they too have the ability to use cyber as an offensive tool. There are other countries and private concerns that are working in the field too, including the UK which is said to be ahead of most countries.

So Putin may feel that he can continue deny responsibility for attacks on the US elections, Brexit referendum and so on. And it is clear that Russia does not believe it needs to play by the rules on free and fair internal elections, despite the international commitments it has made. What May and others will want to see, however, is some sort of agreement that elections in the West are off-limits.

This, however, creates a significant problem for Theresa May as she and the west have been loathe to accept Russian suggestions that there be defined spheres of influence. In particular, Russia sees Ukraine, Belarus, the Caucasus and central Asian republics as ‘their’ territory. Although NATO expansion into these areas might not be immediately on the cards, it is clear that blocking a return of a Russian-led union is a key goal, alongside a move to western style democracy for those that want it. Ukraine very clearly wants to move in this direction and Russia is determined to stop it. A deal which alludes to spheres of influence, even if it gives some peace to the West, cannot be acceptable to relatively new found allies in the East.

If some sort of rapprochement is achieved then it will not be a return to ‘business as usual’. Particularly as this means different things to each side. Relations between Russia and the West have been in a continued state of flux since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The last time there was real certainty was during the Brezhnev era. For most in the West, they probably mean the mid-nineties when Russia appeared to be in a state of liberal capitalism and business could be done. But Russians often look back to that time with far less than fond memories as ordinary citizens were struggling to get by whilst the oligarchs built their empires.

Instead we are likely to see a new normal as the relationship re-sets itself according to new rules and accepted mores. These rules will take some time to bed in and will be continue to be defined by the actions of nation states. But a willingness by May and Putin to start the ball rolling with a formal meeting is the only way that a period of some stability will be possible.

Russian readmission to Council of Europe could have an impact on Ukraine’s Parliamentary election

UPDATE 28/6/19: Six more PACE delegations have walked out of the General Assembly in solidarity with Ukraine.

A row over the readmission of Russia to the Council of Europe could have repurcussions for the up-coming Parliamentary elections in Ukraine as the country’s foreign minister has suggested that an invitation to Council of Europe observers could be withdrawn.

The Council of Europe is a body created to promote democracy and human rights and with 47 members from across the continent. Russia withdrew three years ago following condemnation of the annexation of Crimea and Russian support for the rebels in Eastern Ukraine. Its membership was subsequently suspended. At its summer meeting this week, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (known as PACE) voted on a proposal which would see Russia readmitted. That vote was passed despite strong opposition from Ukraine, the Baltic states, Georgia and the UK delegations.

Proponents of readmission argue that the Council of Europe oversees the work of the European Court of Human Rights and that continued exclusion of Russia would threaten the rights of Russian citizens who regularly win judgements in that court. Those opposed to the measure say it will be seen as a relaxation of sanctions against Russia and a loss of determination over Russian actions against Ukraine and incidents such as the Salisbury poisoning.

New Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has condemned the vote and suggested that many countries’ words of support have not been matched by their actions. Ukraine’s delegation to PACE has temporarily withdrawn in protest and it’s ambassador recalled. 

James Nixey, the head of the Russia and Eurasia programme at Chatham House told TRT World:

“The Council of Europe has had a long and dishonourable record of conceding to Russian diplomacy, through a mixture of corruption, coercion and bribery. Even without these methods, there is also an innate desire in the PACE structures and many of its member states to allow Russia in.”

In a move that will surprise no one, Russia has proposed four people on the international sanctions list as members of their new PACE delegation and have even suggested that they will nominate someone from Crimea.

Now the Foreign Minister of Ukraine, Pavlo Klimkin, has suggested that the invitation issued to PACE to observe the Parliamentary elections on July 21st may be withdrawn. PACE delegations traditionally work alongside the OSCE/ODIHR mission which is the largest and most respected* of the international election observation missions in Ukraine.

There is no question that Ukraine is genuinely angry about the PACE decision. Although not a foreign policy-oriented President, Zelensky had made significant efforts in his relations with France and Germany and the wider EU with his first foreign visits being made to Brussels and then Berlin and Paris. He will feel that his efforts have not been rewarded as German and French delegates were at the forefront of the Council of Europe’s Russia decision. Zelensky’s next foreign trip is to Canada where more than a million citizens describe themselves as ‘Ukrainian-Canadian’. The diaspora there have traditionally been very nationalist and anti-Russian in their outlook.

A recent Chatham House paper argues that:

“Kyiv may find that unconditional European support for Ukraine can no longer be taken for granted, it will have to be won.”

The certainly seems to be the case at the moment. The question will be whether the new President and Parliament are prepared to carry on trying to woo Europe or whether they will revert to more traditional supporters.

 

*Declaration of interest – I work frequently for OSCE/ODIHR and was a long term observer for the mission to observe the Presidential elections in the Spring.