The myriad of ways in which post-Soviet democracies choose to break down

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way – Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Elections are fundamental to democracy, but elections are merely one pillar supporting a democratic system and there are growing numbers of countries where that pillar is crumbling.

The last decade in Europe and the US has shaken our faith in democracy. The US is no longer the archetype that others aspire to. Its electoral system, many features of which were exported around the world, have proved to be quite dysfunctional and manipulable. And while much of Europe still maintains strong elections which accurately reflect the views of the voters who participate, there are also countries where this is no longer always the case.

Elections by themselves are not enough to maintain a healthy democracy. They may increase accountability and inspire citizens, but they may also lead to nationalist hysteria, the oppression of minorities and can legitimise dictators. In post-Soviet Eurasia, many elections have had a negative effect on democratic progression and the events in Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Belarus in recent weeks have shown that change comes not necessarily from elections but from protests or rejection of elections.

International organisations in the West have focussed on elections as the lynchpin of successful democracy. Samuel Huntington’s two turnover test – two changes of power as a result of elections – is just one example of the western fixation on elections as central to democratic success.

But electoral fundamentalism, as David van Reybrouck calls it, is a gross simplification of how democracies function and survive. 

On a practical level, Paddy Ashdown thought similarly. When he became the High Representative for Bosnia Herzegovina he criticised the idea that elections were enough to bring peace and democracy to that country. He pointed out that the rule of law was vital and his efforts were in combatting corruption as a precondition to engendering citizen confidence in the system.

In the post-Soviet world there are a number of examples of what might happen. But as Tolstoy suggested, there is no single model for how democracy breaks down. Whilst we may think of the space as being solely led by authoritarian regimes, this is not the case and it is not possible to read across from one to another except to understand that our focus should be wider than simply counting ballot papers.

Belarus is perhaps the closest to the perceived authoritarian model. A leader who has been in power for many years – in this case having won in a genuinely competitive contest in the first place – dictates the desired result before election day. The state then makes his wishes come true.  In that case there was, for the first time, a sea change in public mood that has resulted in many weeks of street protests. Rather than a rise in pro-Western or anti-Russian feeling as some would have it, this may be a case where citizens see the types of democratic freedoms across their borders with Lithuania and Poland and desire some of that progress for themselves. In this case it is geography that may set them apart from, say, Tajikistan where a very similar result was declared in similar circumstances, but without any apparent public objection. So whilst the incumbent attempts to portray his rivals as stooges of the West, the protests continue to be successful precisely because they are homegrown and not dependent on American (or Polish, or German) money or influence.

Whilst Belarus looks to be a long and drawn-out battle, some recent elections have been set aside with remarkable swiftness. Kyrgyzstan has been referred to on many occasions as an island of democracy in a sea of central asian authoritarianism. The truth is that this is another country where electoral practices are a veneer over a deeply flawed democracy. The different parties there are not ideologically based but instead founded on clans and regional identity. Elections have long been a battle between the north and the south with most electors controlled either by clan loyalty or by payment. Even after a peaceful handover of power in 2017, the new President chose to imprison his predecessor rather than risk him trying to control the country from behind the scenes.

After last month’s parliamentary elections produced a deeply unconvincing result with just four parties declared to have met the 7% threshold, the public took to the streets. This was the third such revolution in two decades and Kyrgyz people are so used to rioting that there are established civilian groups that coalesce to protect property and businesses. In double quick time President Jeenbekov acknowledged the result was flawed and promised fresh elections. But this was not enough for the mob who demanded, and got, his resignation. The presidency, prime ministership and parliament itself is now in the hands of a nationalist politician who was elected to none of these roles and fresh elections are due next year. The EU has rung the alarm bells at this change and has stated that Jeenbekov is the only legitimate leader in the country until such time as new elections are held. But whilst these might result in additional parties being elected to Parliament and a formal change in President, it is unlikely that the institutions will be more firmly grounded. A fourth revolt is only a matter of time.

In Kyrgyzstan, as with any other country in the region, the role of Russia is a constant question. Russia has a lot on its plate at the moment with Armenia and Azerbaijan as well as Belarus and Ukraine. The Kremlin does not appear to be paying much attention to Bishkek, mostly because they know there is little they can do, but also because there are none of the potential leaders who scare them. There is no move to unite with the West, with China or with any other strategic opponent. And Russia has proved able to squash every attempt so far among the central Asian states to co-operate more closely in their economies – the issue that concerns Moscow the most. These efforts are being led by the leaders of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan but are routinely dampened down by Russia which wants its Eurasian Economic Union to be the only game in town.

Other countries – outside the former Soviet world – give greater hope that constitutionality and the rule of law can win through. In both Malawi and Kenya, deeply troubled elections have been declared void by constitutional courts and re-runs have ben ordered. But these results have only been possible thanks to strong and independent judges, something that is very rare in even the best of the former CIS countries.

Armenia and Azerbaijan and countries which are very different politically. Azerbaijan has modelled itself closely on the authoritarian model with an unwritten deal that promises economic prosperity and good living conditions in return for a loss of political and electoral rights. This trade, however, relies on the continued prosperity bought by petro-chemical resources and the gas price crash and general economic slowdown brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic may start to induce tensions.

In contrast, Armenia has long practised the concept of seemingly competitive elections and changes of power. But at crucial moments the country has had to rely on street protest and revolution to change course.

In both cases, a fundamental flaw has become the absolutist nature of policy over the disputed territory of Karabakh, or Artsakh to the Armenians. During Soviet times this island of mainly Armenian inhabitants surrounded by the Azeri SSR was not a major issue. But since independence in 1991 there has been an almost constant conflict and the current battles demonstrate that it shows no sign of abating. This is not a frozen conflict but the positions of each combatant have atrophied to the extent that no person can come to power in Armenia unless they promise that Artsakh is and will always remain Armenian. And whilst an authoritarian ruler is not so hidebound to electoral promises, the Azeri position has become a lot stronger in recent years as they have developed their military with modern weapons including drones and now have the overt support of Turkey as that country seeks to demonstrate its aspirations to become a regional power. If parties come to power time and again promising the impossible then this weakens faith in the electoral process.

Three elections are imminent in the post-Soviet world and each presents a different case to show how democracy is weak when it relies simply on elections.

In Ukraine, contests are taking place to choose mayors and local authorities. These polls follow the overwhelming victory of Volodymyr Zelensky in the presidential election last year and his party, Servant of the People, in the parliamentary vote which followed soon after.

A novice politician, Zelensky has seen that in a country which has stronger democratic institutions than many, it is not possible to rule by presidential fiat. He has not been able to magic a solution to the Donbas or Crimean occupations, nor to solve the economic woes of the country. Frequent changes in government ministers do not help and, whilst his predecessors would marvel at his opinion poll ratings, these have been going steadily down as it becomes clear that likeability is not the same as administrative competence. In this case public confidence is not just waning in the individual, but also in the hope that a genuine change in the political system was in the offing. 

It is perhaps not too late to turn the situation around, but to do so probably relies on correcting the major failing in Ukraine which is the oligarchical system. With so many industrial leaders behind, and sometimes in front of, the scenes, the public realise that their elected leaders are not answerable to them but to the paymasters who control the media and jobs.

When it comes to local and municipal elections the system fails further. Most incumbent mayors do not align themselves with national parties but have their own local groupings. These groupings then control the allocation of municipal jobs and contracts. The national parties may divide the seats on local councils between them, but the power lies with mayors who are not answerable to anyone other than their oligarchic paymasters.

Moldova is another country where oligarchs have run riot, but the prominence of Vlad Plahotniuc and Ilan Shor does not tell the whole story as they control only one of three factions within political life. The second is the pro-Russian Socialist Party of incumbent President Igor Dodon and the third is the technocrat pro-western party led by Maia Sandu. Each of these groupings has at times aligned with another in an attempt to eliminate the third. The oligarchs were exiled for a while but then allied with Dodon to oust the government of Sandu before it could implement real change. Now it seems the oligarchs are backing Sandu as the best chance to knock Dodon off his perch – but at what price? In all of this, voters will continue to choose between contestants but their wishes only hold sway on a temporary basis as the real battles continue to take place behind closed doors. All the while the economy falls further and a portion of the country remains under effective Russian control.

In Georgia, elections exemplify a misplaced faith in parties as instruments of accountability and promoters of diffusion of power. Since 1991, some elections in Georgia have been genuine expressions of voter will, but most have solidified the parties in power and cemented the privileges of Georgia’s ruling political circles.

This is another country where street protests have borne fruit. In this case it is the opening up of the electoral system such that opposition parties are now more likely to gain representation. It is not quite the ‘everyone must have prizes’ system of the 1992-95 parliament when 26 parties were represented, but nonetheless the reduction to just 30 majoritarian seats (out of 150) and the lowering of the threshold to 1% represents a substantial change. In addition, the requirement that one in four list candidates must be a woman should ensure that female representation rises from the present, pitiful, nine, although there is no equivalent quota for national minorities. 

All these are important concessions from the ruling Georgian Dream grouping and they are a recognition of the need for compromise. Most importantly no one knows what the outcome will be – or at least whether Georgian Dream will win an overall majority. Uncertainty about the results is always a good sign. An NDI poll in the summer suggested an 88% turnout although 59% still didn’t know who they are voting for. Most voters will now have made up their mind, but the absence of constant polling – as in the US – means that the public, and parties, will enter election day uncertain as to the outcome.

For elections to work as instruments of greater accountability, they have to be competitive, definitive and enjoy voter confidence, with accessible information on party policies and the differences between them and they have to lead to visible outcomes. One would also hope the elections would promote a degree of social integration rather than fragmentation. But despite the signing by over 40 Georgian parties of a code of conduct on September 12, there is little evidence of electoral features which will lead to a more qualitative democracy. 

Most seriously, elected representatives should govern because they have been given the power to do so by electors. But in Georgia they will not due to Inashvili’s overwhelming economic and political influence. This is the greatest challenge in Georgia right now.

The increased party list system helps opposition parties but it also helps solidify the powers of party leaders who control the lists and reduces the accountability of MPs to constituents. The elections are competitive, but how fair will they be. Georgian Dream has overwhelming financial resources and the apparatus of the state, particularly in the regions where the election process is opaque and GD has significant control over local government and over who gets appointed to the precinct electoral commissions. Polls suggest voter confidence in political parties and knowledge of what the parties are offering is very low. This is because parties have no staying power and appear and disappear frequently. There are a raft of new parties in this election, as in almost every election since 1991. But most parties – old and new – represent a clique or are crafted in the image of a strongman. Very few represent a coherent ideology. 

What is perhaps more worrying is that every election since 1991 has operated under different rules. This suggests a persistent disconnect between the population and the politicians. If every parliament so fails to reflect the will of the voters that the system needs to be changed then perhaps it is not the voting system that is failing. It is good that public pressure can bring political change, but in a democracy that should be through the ballot box rather than protests on the streets. 

For these reasons the 2020 election is unlikely to foster greater democracy or accountability. If these elections once again fail to produce a positive outcome such as better prosperity or increased accountability then they will chip further away at Georgian peoples’ faith in democracy.

All of this gloom and doom is not to suggest for a minute that elections and a wider democratic model should not be the aspiration of each country and should not be promoted by those in a position to influence things. There are signs of progress, albeit very slight. That Uzbekistan wants to eliminate polling day fraud and the ruling party in Kazakhstan is choosing its candidates through primaries are to be welcomed, even if they are comparatively tiny steps forward in countries which remain deeply undemocratic.

The UK Government is set to announce its strategic foreign and defence policy review next month and a focus on promoting democracy, the rule of law and human rights must surely be front and centre. Equally, the election in the United States may well produce the return of an administration which values multi-lateral institutions and looks to promote its values more actively. Both Germany and France remain active in promoting liberal internationalism around the world, but the EU also needs to look close to home as both Poland and Hungary continue to present worrying evidence of democratic backsliding.

Rahmon secures another 7-year term as Tajikistan President

Emomali Rahmon has won re-election to the presidency of Tajikistan for a sixth term in a result that will shock precisely no-one. He is declared to have won just over 90% of the votes cast on an 85% turnout, beating four (male) rivals.

No election in Tajikistan has been considered to be genuinely free and fair since the country gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Rahmon (then Rahmonov) has led the country since 1994 and is credited with ending the five year civil war. He is the only candidate exempt from term limits and has been granted the honorific ‘Leader of the Nation’ by the lower house of Parliament. Tajikistan follows the ‘strong-presidential’ of most states in the region and its leaders have been elected for seven-year terms since 1999.

There had been some speculation that Rahmon might succeeded by his son Rustam Emomali but this did not come to pass and the incumbent stood against candidates representing the Agrarian Party, Party of Economic Reform, Socialist Party and Communist Party. All were broadly pro-government. Opposition activist Faromuz Irgashev and Saidjafar Usmonzoda of the Democratic Party were denied registration and the Social Democratic Party – the only formal opposition party in the parliament – announced it would boycott the polls.

Whilst the constitution of Tajikistan allows for free campaigning and equal access to the media, the reality was a lacklustre campaign with no rallies or activities on the ground – despite the election being a month earlier than is traditional for Tajik elections and the weather therefore being more conducive to outdoor activity. TV debates mostly consisted of candidates reading pre-prepared statements and had no questioning or back-and-forth. Domestic observers are prohibited in the country and only representatives of organisations which nominated candidates may attend polling stations. International observers are permitted, but OSCE/ODIHR was only able to send a small assessment team because of Covid-19. A longer term mission from CIS, a body which traditionally whitewashes authoritarian elections, was present.

Rahmon appeared to have genuine popularity in the early days as the person who brought the country out of civil war. But the economy is in decline and the effects of Covid-19 have been to make living conditions even more difficult. Tajikistan is reliant internally on trade with Russia and many hundreds of thousands of citizens work abroad for part or all of the year, sending remittances back to the country. Recently there has also been some Chinese investment as part of the Belt and Road Initiative and there is an attempt to relax some of the notorious border bureaucracy between the five central asian states – an initiative from Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. However it is clear that the country is struggling and does not have the petro-chemical or abstraction resources that some of its neighbours can rely on.

In common with Turkmenistan, Tajikistan is the subject of much speculation as to its future direction. Dushanbe has long had Russian military bases on its soil but has now taken the decision also to allow the Chinese to build a base in the East of the country. As with the other countries of central Asia, Russia has little interest in re-absorbing the states into its territory given the likely costs of doing so. But they view these states as ‘the near abroad’ – a backyard in which it does not intend to allow others to gain too much control. The presence of the Chinese base has also alarmed India following the clashes that have taken place between the two countries in recent weeks.

RFE/RL reported that many people had cast multiple ballots with those who did so saying that they voted on behalf of family members who could not get to the polls. This proxy voting has been common across Tajikistan and some of its neighbours for many years.

Nevertheless, Rahmon was delared the outright winner in a contest which envisaged a second round if no candidate won more than half the votes cast and fresh elections if turnout fell below 50%.

Result (source RFE/RL):

Emomali Rahmon (People’s Democratic Party) 90.92%

Rustam Latifzoda (Agrarian Party) 3.03%

Rustam Rahmatzoda (Party of Economic Reform) 2.15%

Abduhalim Ghafforzoda (Socialist Party) 1.49%

Miroj Abdulloyev (Communist Party) 1.17%

Turnout 85.4%

What makes this result interesting is that candidates were required to secure the signatures of 5% of the electorate in order to be registered. That four candidates should have managed this feat but failed to secure that same number of votes in the actual election is further testimony to the unsatisfactory nature of the election.

Reading List – 8th October 2020

Russia and Europe: Stuck on Autopilot

This is a long read which looks at Russia’s relationships with three key European players – Germany, France and the UK. Andrew Weiss of Carnegie argues that at a time when Russia could be exploiting EU and NATO weaknesses to subtly further its foreign policy ambitions, it is acting too bluntly. 

Germany has traditionally separated business ties from politics, but there are strong calls for the Nord-Stream 2 project to be cancelled or put on hold. Whilst these are being resisted by Chancellor Merkel and her likely successors, there is clearly a block to any new ventures.

President Macron has continued the French tradition of seeking closer ties with Russia, partly as a demonstration of an alternative view of Europe that does not rely on the USA. Russia has proved less responsive however and continues to undertake projects in Francophone Africa which the Elysee Palace views as treading on its toes. If Russia can have a sphere of influence then whay cannot France?

As for the UK, Russian money is deeply embedded here and the ISC report showed just how close the Conservative party and Kremlin have become. But activities such as the Skripal poisoning led to the UK co-ordinating a global response which Russia did not predict.

Europe’s Longest-Running Conflict Can’t Be Ignored

Another piece about the Armenia/Azerbaijan conflict, this time from Thomas de Waal of Carnegie. Her argues that the conflict cannot be ignored and can only be resolved with Russian assistance. 

The Foreign Secretary’s Evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee: 10 Things We Learned

Sophia Gaston, the director of the British Foreign Policy Group, looks at Dominic Raab’s evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee for clues as to the outcome of the Government’s strategic foreign policy review.

There appears to be a very nuanced stance on China with a desire to keep them in the room and talking whilst also making sure they cannot dominate multilateral institutions while America is focussed elsewhere. There is even talk of a boycott of the forthcoming Beijing Winter Olympics.

However it seems the UK will continue to press the idea of being a champion of democracy and human rights whilst maintianing strong ties to Saudi Arabia and other repressive regimes.

As far as Russia is concerned, there doesn’t appear to be a lot of new policy around the corner. Perhaps sensing that strong action to counter corrupt money housed in London would simply highlight the claims made in the ISC report, Raab downplayed the issue, although he did raise the possibility of Magnitsky type action in the future.

The Challenge of Observing American Democracy

This is a great read for those of us interested or involved in the election observation business.

Moldova’s election looms – and so does trouble

There is a presidential election coming up in a former soviet country on the EU’s Eastern flank. It’s going to be a close contest between an incumbent who embraces Russia and a challenger whose outlook is more western.

The country is Moldova and, whilst the situation is very different from that faced by Belarus two months ago, there are sufficient similarities that should worry the west. The country will go to the polls on November 1st and then again for an almost certain second round two weeks later.

Moldova has been the site of a so-called frozen conflict almost since independence. Following a three month war in 1992, Transnistria has been a breakaway state subject to a tripartite agreement that doesn’t look like being resolved. Apart from anything else, the status quo allows for a Russian army base (and huge arms dump) to be sited on NATO’s eastern flank (and, considentally, on the border with Western Ukraine). There have been proposals to help end the stand-off, but the most likely was hijacked to form the basis of a solution to the Donbas conflict. It always seems to be the case that Moldova’s needs play second fiddle to wider regional or geo-politics.

Moldova’s major political problem is that it has three major forces which tend to balance each other out. The incumbent president is Igor Dodon of the Socialist Party. He has claimed to be equidistant between Russia and the EU, but few have ever believed this to be the case and that mask has slipped in recent months as his true colours as a Kremlin ally are to the fore.

Dodon’s main challenger is Maia Sandu of PAS. Sandu is a technocrat who was briefly prime minister and who lost to Dodon in the 2016 Presidential run-off by 52-48%. As Prime Minister, she relied on a coalition deal with the rather shaky PPDA party and an informal alliance with Dodon and the Socialists. Although favoured by the west, she has been outplayed by other parties in the past, never more so than when she resigned on a matter of principle that was engineered by the Socialists to expose her naivitée.

The other grouping centres around the country’s oligarchs. Chief among these is Vlad Plahotniuc, the former motivating force behind the Democrat Party. Plahotniuc was run out of the country and escaped to the USA where he is currently under investigation. Nevertheless, he maintains a lot of political influence in Moldova and, although the Democrats have withered away to almost nothing, he and his fellow oligarchs have been shamelessly buying up sitting MPs under a range of party names.

From doing a deal with the Socialists to get rid of Plahotniuc, Sandu is now contemplating a deal with the oligarchs to get rid of Dodon. Certainly she seems like the most likely candidate to make it through to a run-off with the incumbent and she will need to win the votes controlled by the oligarchs in order to triumph. What price she is willing to pay – especilly in terms of credibility – will be watched closely.

Polling in Moldova is not widespread, but the US group IRI carried out a survey over the summer which found that Sandu and Dodon were within 2% of each other in first round preferences, but that neither could manage the support or more than one in five of the electorate (not voting and don’t knows were 33% of the responses). 

Where the Moldovan elections echo those in Belarus is this suspicion of vote rigging. Sandu’s party has put up billboards in Chisinau declaring, “He thinks he can steal the election” (NG-Dipkuryer, September 20). But even as President, Dodon has not captured enough of the state apparatus to declare that he won 80% of the vote. But there might well be significant irregularities on both sides. Dodon would like to face anyone other than Sandu in the second round and Sandu herself will be reliant on the votes of people controlled by the oligarchs who have done so much to ruin the country.

If there are protests – and that seems likely whoever wins – then these will not just be about the election. The Moldovan economy has been wrecked in the decades since independence and GDP is less than a third of what it was in 1991. Dodon is as mired in corruption scandals as the oligarchs were but does not have the state apparatus to control the streets if it comes to that. The same IRI poll found 72% of respondents believe the country is heading in the wrong direction. Economic issues feature at the top of the list of concerns with political leadership and unprofessional governance next. Despite having a terrible record dealing with Covid-19, this issue doesn’t make the top three concerns. A despondent country in which neither of the main players can enthuse the electorate leaves the contest wide open to falsification.

Some are suggesting that the country has failed to such an extent that integration with Romania is the only answer. Such a move would not find favour either within the EU or Russia, but is demonstrative of the situation Moldova now finds itself in. With such embedded pessimism, even a solution to an electoral problem might not be enough to end any protests.

Electoral Reform Society reveals the scale of secretive online campaigning in the UK

The Electoral Reform Society has published a report looking at the amount of dark campaigning that took place during the UK’s general election of 2019. They have also come up with a number of proposals for reform.

In the report, Dr Katharine Dommett and Dr Sam Power have looked at five aspects of online campaigning:

  • Campaigning by the parties themselves
  • Campaigning by third party groups (outriders)
  • Online Targeting
  • Data Use
  • Misinformation

Some of these might seem pretty familiar by now. Parties have every right to use Facebook and other platforms and these offer exceptional ability to micro-target. The problem is that there is a fine line between legitimate campaigning and breaking the rules. And as the Cambridge Analytica scandal showed, there are groups who are prepared to go well beyond the law in order to help their side win.

Perhaps the least known aspect covered by this report is the section on ‘outriders’. These are groups that set up just before an election, raise and spend money during it, and then disappear. It often takes many months to show that perhaps these groups were not as independent as they might seem.

The report looks at one group called ‘3rd Party Limited’. This group appears to have taken out adverts which had the effect of boosting the chances of Dominic Raab being re-elected in the Esher and Walton constituency. The ERS report suggests that it placed adverts which first aimed to split the opposition vote between Labour and Greens and then promoted votes for Raab himself, spending £8,837 on Facebook adverts between 21st November and 13th December 2019. To put it into context, that is just over half the amount that Mr Raab was allowed to spend in total on his election campaign.

The difference between non-party groups, which mostly operate on a national basis, and outriders which aim to get around spending limits on local campaigns, might be clear in theory, but in legal terms is anything but. To be clear, there is no suggestion that there was co-ordination between Mr Raab and ‘3rd Party limited’ or any wrongdoing. However, the law as it stands does allow these outriders to make a mockery of local spending limits.

The ERS report makes ten recommendations for the future which, in my opinion, are strong and the very least that can be done to update the UK’s election law. They go far beyond the limited (but welcome) proposal by the government to add imprint requirements to online adverts.

  1. Require campaigners to provide the Electoral Commission with more detailed, meaningful and accessible invoices of what they have spent, boosting scrutiny and transparency over online vs offline spend. 
  2. Strengthen the powers of the Electoral Commission to investigate malpractice and create a stronger deterrent against wrongdoing by increasing the maximum fine it can levy. 
  3. Implement shorter reporting deadlines so that financial information from campaigns on their donations and spending is available to voters and the Commission more quickly after a campaign, or indeed, in ‘real time’. Currently, voters have to wait far too long to see the state of the campaign.  
  4. Regulate all donations by reducing ‘permissibility check’ requirements from £500 to 1p for all non-cash donations, and £500 to £20 for cash donations. The current rules are riddled with loopholes and haven’t kept up with the digital age, raising the risks of foreign or unscrupulous interference.  
  5. Create a publicly accessible, clear and consistent archive of paid-for political advertising. This archive should include details of each advert’s source (name and address), who sponsored (paid) for it, and (for some) the country of origin.  
  6. New controls created by social media companies to check that people or organisations who want to pay to place political adverts about elections and referendums in the UK are actually based in the UK or registered to vote here.  
  7. New legislation clarifying that campaigning by non-UK actors is not allowed. Campaigners should not be able to accept money from companies that have not made enough money in the UK to fund the amount of their donation or loan. 
  8. Legislate for a statutory code of practice for the use of personal information in political campaigns, to clarify the rules and ensure voters know their rights. 
  9. A public awareness and digital literacy campaign which will better allow citizens to identify misinformation. 
  10. 10.Rationalise Britain’s sprawling, Victorian-era electoral law under one consistent legislative framework. 

United Russia still the Kremlin’s favoured party for Duma elections, local polls suggest

The end for United Russia is not nigh. The party that has dominated Russian politics since 2003 thanks to its connections to Presidents Putin and Medvedev suffered some reversals in last week’s local and regional elections, but it has not been abandoned by the Kremlin as some had predicted.

Overall, United Russia (Единая Россия) saw its vote share fall from 59% in the regional elections held in 2015 to 47.6% this time – a drop of 11.4%. That is a big chunk and falling below the 50% mark is certainly a blow to the pride of the ruling party. Also losing ground was A Just Russia (Справедливая Россия) whose vote share fell from 9.8% to 7.8%. Two parties from the systemic opposition gained ground. The Communist Party (КПРФ) rose from 12.3% to 13.5% and the LDPR (ЛДПР) from 9.9% to 11.6%.

But these tiny gains don’t explain where all of United Russia’s votes went. The answer is a mix of candidates standing as independents and new parties which may or may not be controlled by the Kremlin.

The reason for United Russian’s fall is that over the past few years the party has been the lightning rod for protests against unpopular government policies. From domestic waste disposal to plans for new church buildings, there have been a number of local issues which have seen large-scale protests. These are protests not against the system, nor against oligarchic corruption – issues which might be expected to draw a heavy handed response – and as such they have flourished. One national policy that has cut through has been the repeated attempts to cut public spending on pensions. To protect President Putin as much as possible, it has been United Russia – a party to which Putin has never belonged and which merely endorses his independent candidacy – that has taken the blame.

The concern has been that maybe United Russia has taken on too much of the burden of unpopular decisions. Maybe it is time to cut it adrift and ally the Kremlin to a new political party, or even to a range of them. These results seem to indicate that although significantly bloodied, United Russia will still be a major player in the Duma contests next year.

But for the immediate contests, a large number of candidates for single mandate seats, including those for regional governor, decided to stand as independents. And such a tactic worked. No incumbent governor who stood for re-election was defeated.

In addition, the move towards more proportional voting systems for regional assemblies is being reversed. To take the exampe of Astrakhan. Back in the elections of 2010 there were 35 seats on the assembly, all elected by first-past-the-post and therefore favouring strong individual campaigns rather than parties. The Medvedev reforms led to a balance of 18 majoritarian seats and 18 elected via party lists – a boost for the chances of United Russia when that party was running strongly in the polls. But this time around there was a reversion to 36 single member seats and no list. The unpopularity of United Russia could not have a chance to affect the result and a slate of loyalists could be assured, albeit running under a number of banners. Other regions have seen the relative proportions of single member and list seats change in different ways, but the trend has been towards electing individuals rather than parties.

The new parties also bear close inspection. I wrote a few months ago about the Kremlin’s efforts to set these up. Four new parties eventually competed across a number of regions, although some of these suffered from the usual attempts by authorities to limit competition by keeping them off the ballot paper.

The four new parties were the New People’s Party (Новые люди), the Direct Democracy Party (Партия прямой демократии), For Justice (За правду) and The Green Alternative (Зеленая альтернатива). They were joined by The Russian Party of Pensioners for Social Justice (РППСС – Российская партия пенсионеров за социальную справедливость) who have been around for a while and sought to capitalise on the unpopularity of the pension reforms. 

The Pensioners Party won seats in seven of the nine regions they were on the ballot and gained an average of 5.9%. The New People’s Party (which includes some outwardly liberal figures in its leadership) won an average of just over 7% where they were on the ballot and took 15% in Tomsk, a student city which has been the subject of widespread protests recently. For Truth (apparently a nationalist party) averaged just 2% but obviously enjoyed administrative support in the Ryazan region where they got almost 7% and won seats. For Direct Democracy (a party apparently set up to draw gamers to the polls) was the only new party to fail to win a seat anywhere as they scored between 0.3% and 2.3% in the various regions in which they competed – although that might be too strong a term as there is no evidence of much campaigning taking place.

Perhaps most interesting was The Green Alternative which also did not appear to have any real presence on the ground but who nevertheless managed to win seats in the Chelyabinsk region through suspicious activity in the city of Zlatoust. Here the new party won up to 39% of the vote in some polling stations and averaged almost 20%. Conversely, United Russia was declared to have won just 3%. In concurrent city elections United Russia won 20-30% in the same areas. The local suspicion is that the party vote totals on result sheets were simply swapped around.

But why should such results matter (except to people in the Chelyabinsk Region, of course). It is because any party which holds at least one regional seat can stand candidates for the Duma without having to collect voter signatures. The requirement to collect at least 200,000 voter signatures has long been the means by which genuine opposition candidates such as Alexey Navalny have been kept off the ballot. So at next year’s Duma polls we will see candidates from three of the four new parties on the ballot. The options for the Kremlin are still therefore wide open. They can continue to seek an overall majority for United Russia. They can allow new parties into the Duma and have a broad coalition of deputies who will back President Putin on key issues or they might even allow the Communists and LDPR to gain greater representation.

Keeping the options open assists in the battle against the ‘smart voting’ tactic currently being advocated by Navalny. Whilst some of his allies have made it to the ballot paper and even been successful in municipal elections, his main effort is now focussed on backing whichever candidate looks most likely to beat the Kremlin loyalist. He has been happy to back both Communists and LDPR candidates in recent contests as well as independents. With multiple parties aiming to compete in each seat in the Duma elections next year it might not be obvious who is the Kremlin favourite until the last minute, making it difficult to set up a contest that the opposition has any chance of winning. Navalny might even end up backing the candidate also favoured by the Kremlin. It is a cat and mouse game in which voters are often left out in the cold.

These recent election contests were also notable for formalising some of the new practices brought in during the ‘National Vote’ on the new constitution. Voting was spread across three days with more electronic voting and, supposedly because of worries about Covid-19, voting could also take place outside the confines of the polling station. None of these did anything to boost turnout – the ostensible reason – and participation actually fell in most areas, but they will almost certainly have helped to marshall the ‘payroll vote’ to back establishment candidates.

This article uses figures from research carried out by Alexander Kynev, Associate Professor, Higher School of Economics, and presented to a Chatham House seminar (held on the record). I am grateful for his work.

Reading List – 10th September 2020

After a few weeks off, here is some catch up reading on key issues:

What Russia Really Has in Mind for Belarus – And why Western leaders must act

A look at one possible plan that President Putin has for his troubled neighbour and how it migh unfold. The authors argue that rather than an army of Little Green Men, there are a load of Little Grey Men inside Belarus gradually moving it closer and closer to Russia.

Democracy After Coronavirus: Five challenges for the 2020s

This is a long read – a great study on the difference that the pandemic has made to elections and the wider issue of democracy. In this regard, this paper argues that there are five main challenges for democracies after coronavirus: protecting the safety and integrity of elections, finding the right place for expertise, coping with resurgent populism and nationalism, countering homegrown and foreign disinformation, and defending the democratic model.

Lessons learned with social media monitoring

Another long read – this time a look at how different domestic election observers have tried to tackle the task of monitoring what is being said and by whom on social media. Regular readers will know this is a keen area of interest of mine and this paper sums up the great work done by the various NGOs as well as the frustrations they face.

Turkmenistan and Armenia plan constitutional changes

Two former Soviet states are planning to amend their constitutions according to media reports. Although one change is likely to be much more significant than the other.

In Armenia the headline proposal would see the voting age lowered to 16. But the raft of changes are much wider than this. The so-called ‘stable majority’ system also looks set to be scrapped.

The voting age proposal currently has three options. One would be to retain the current age of 18. A second would see a reduction to either 16 or 17 for all elections. The third would allow the Parliament to decide the age for any given election. This last seems relatively chaotic as parliamentarians might seek to gain political advantage from their choice and young voters themselves would not know where they stood until weeks before a poll was due.

The stable majority system works like this: if no party or bloc emerges from an election with more than half the seats then a second round will be held between the top two parties or blocs. The winner will get enough additional seats to take them to 54% of the total number of seats. At the same time, if a single party or bloc wins more than two thirds of the seats then additional seats are created to give the opposition parties at least one third of all seats.

A useful take on the proposals can be found on the EPDE website here.

The relatively ceremonial modification comes from Turkmenistan where the creation of a Senate to replace the Khalk Maslahaty (or People’s Council) will be watched most to see who becomes the Chair of the new body and therefore likely next in line should President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov die suddenly. The chances are that this role will be taken by his son Serdar.

The replacement of the Khalk Maslahaty by a Senate of 56 members might seem like a step towards better democracy. But not all of the new Senators will be elected (eight will be appointed by the President) and elections in Turkmenistan have never really been that genuine. Adding a second chamber to the existing rubber-stamp Parliament is not going to make much difference.

How President Putin won his National Vote (and gave himself 12 more years in office)

Russian voters have approved President Putin’s plans to change the constitution (and coincidentally allow him to serve two further six-year terms in office) by a margin of more than three to one in a national vote held over the past week.

The fact, and even the margin, of victory should surprise no one since there was no opposition campaign allowed and the regime pulled out all the stops to both boost turnout and secure a yes vote. There were also no effective election observers on the ground to highlight foul play.

The constitutional changes were announced in January, supposedly as a means of rebalancing power towards Parliament and away from the President. But at the last minute, in a carefully choreographed intervention, President Putin’s supporters in the Duma suggested that the term limits slate should be wiped clean, effectively allowing the incumbent a further twelve years in office after his current term ends in 2024.

Originally scheduled for April but postponed due to the coronavirus, the decision has been made over the course of the week of voting following the massive Victory Day parade to commemorate the 75th anniversary the end of World War 2.

Putin’s efforts to boost turnout are not unique to this poll. For his re-election in 2018 he received more than 70% support on a turnout around 65% and he asked for the same again this time. And once again there are a massive range of measures, both official and not, in place to help him get his wish. So many measures, in fact, that even the loyalist chair of the Electoral Commission, Ella Pamfilova, has warned that turnout fraud could discredit the entire process.

The most legitimate (and a move that other countries could do well to learn from) allows electors to change their polling location via an app to make sure they don’t miss out because of work or travel commitments. Train stations, ice breakers and even the polar research base all had their own polling stations for this purpose and cosmonaut Anatoly Ivanishin became the first person to vote online from space.

But, less officially, many tricks have been used to tempt people to vote. There were lots of beautification contests giving electors a choice over municipal spending to clear up local eyesores. Many polling stations hosted childrens concerts or offered cheap food and drink to encourage people along. Others held raffles with each voter given a ticket just for turning up. Sadly these might not have been quite the draw if the example of one Omsk polling station is anything to go by as the polling station chairperson conducting the draw happened to pick his own name in the contest to win an apartment.

Because of Covid-19, there was a fear that many electors will be dissuaded from voting through health concerns. A new law passed earlier this month extended the limited right to vote from home and allowed electors to vote in courtyards outside polling stations where it is thought the virus cannot be transmitted so easily. And in Moscow region a new internet voting system has been developed with more than 93% of those who registered to use the system turning out to vote, although there are allegations that people have been able to vote both over the internet and in person.

These changes would make life a lot more difficult for independent poll watchers if such existed. Longstanding domestic groups such as Golos no longer have the right to attend polling stations. If they want to observe they must join state-run Civic Chambers whose leaders – themselves state employees – will decide the wording of any observation statement. And because it is not a formal referendum, the law ‘does not envisage’ the presence of missions from the OSCE or any other credible international group. A group of far-right and other Kremlin-loyal politicians from Germany’s AfD and Italy’s League parties have been flown in to give approval to the poll, however.

There are reports of an effort to develop tracking software so that businesses can see whether their staff have voted. Such concern is usually unwarranted. Most companies rely to a greater or lesser extent on state contracts and, with the result of any poll or election a foregone conclusion, most employees recognise that their jobs are at risk if their firm does not record a high turnout. The odd vote against is accepted so long as participation is high. With the popularity of the regime so low, however, extra precautions have been taken. Notwithstanding that, there are some sections of society where high participation can be guaranteed and more than 90% of the military have voted.

In the past, apartment blocks in areas with historic records of low turnout, mainly in Moscow and St Petersburg, would find themselves ‘accidentally’ left off the voter list. Residents who turn up to vote receive an apology and are added to a special supplemental list. But anyone who fails to turn up was never on the list in the first place and so does not impact on turnout levels. Without observers on the ground, it is impossible to tell if that tactic is in use again, but it is reasonable to assume so as the President seeks the strongest mandate possible for his reforms. There are also the usual allegations that polling station officials have cast votes on behalf of those who do not turn up, even if they are dead. Anything to ensure that the area they are responsible for doesn’t draw attention to itself with a significantly low turnout.

Perhaps the only constraint on President Putin is that he could not afford to stretch credibility too far. Those who voted against the proposals or who boycotted the event altogether needed to see their decision reflected in the locally declared result. Whilst a WCIOM poll found that just 42% of Russians believe that the results will relate to the actual choices made by voters, the 70/70 formula was devised to be just about credible whilst giving a comprehensive thumbs up to the idea of President-for-Life Vladimir Putin.