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14 November 2016

Elections in the regions: a deceptive triumph and the regional Zaporozhets

The headache of divides within the power elite instead of the non-systemic opposition

It is no secret that the results of the federal election are entrenched in the regional context generated by not only administrative, but also budgetary functions of the regions: elections become testing grounds for loyalty to the federal center. The regions determine the election results of the ruling party, and they are indicative of the divides within the power elite.

A mechanism whereby voters are offered material benefits in exchange for their vote is often called “a political machine”. This machine entails patron-client relations between the voter and the authorities whereby elites “buy” votes in a variety of ways. This system requires a high degree of cooperation between different parties and politicians. Everyone is supposed to play by the known rules: elections are depoliticized, a high turnout is ensured thanks to loyal groups among the population (most often retirees and public employees), administrative resources are taken advantage of and are evenly distributed without conflicts (at least public ones). Given such a system, the federal authorities remain hypertrophied, strong players. The regional political puzzle falls to pieces whenever they decide to interfere with local processes.

The results of the 2016 election compared to results of the 2011 election, based on party lists, demonstrate that far fewer votes were cast in many regions in favor of the ruling party when one applies the rule of proportional representation. A rapid decline in the number of votes could indicate a gradual meltdown of the political machine caused either by the interference of federal forces in the regional game of solitaire or by intra-elite conflicts unsolvable by either feds or regions.

When you chop wood, chips fly

The number of votes in favor of the United Russia (UR) party plummeted during the election held on September 18 in the Komi Republic: a fall from 21st place in 2011 to 76th in 2016. Such a devastating drop in UR popularity can easily be explained by the so-called “Gaizer case” – a corruption scandal which resulted in the arrest of the head of the Komi Republic Vyacheslav Gaizer, the former president of the republic Vladimir Torlopov and approximately 20 representatives of the regional political and business elite. The roots of the case can be traced back to the Viktor Vekselberg’s Renova company and its subsidiary T Plus whose top managers were arrested on charges of bribing the republic’s leadership. This is not the first instance of the blamestorming of Vekselberg, Russia’s wealthiest businessman who testified in the Skolkovo Innovation Center embezzlement case in 2013. According to Ilya Ponomarev, accused of receiving large sums from the Skolkovo Fund, Vekselberg realized that the case had presented him with an opportunity to settle the score with Vladislav Surkov and to emerge unscathed having testified against him. Vekselberg is not a defendant in the case of Renova, either. Experts spare no effort in trying to determine whether the scandal associated with the company is purely technical and relates to real problems with heating in the region or whether the roots of the scandal, which reached its apotheosis during the pre-election period in the summer, lie in the political field. One way or another, “the chips went flying” when an attempt was made to fell the regional corrupt vertical of power by central authorities. These chips were individuals who support regional election machines. The ramped-up fight against corruption designed to prompt people to attend polling stations and vote for the “fighters” was lost as it resulted in 37% votes cast in favor of UR and a meager turnout.

The case of “the black cashier”

The Chelyabinsk Oblast reported an equally rapid drop in the number of votes cast in favor of UR (27th place in 2011, 72nd – in 2016). The region faced a situation similar to that of the Komi Republic as a corruption scandal involving the Deputy Governor of the Chelyabinsk Oblast Nikolay Sandakov and a dozen high-ranking regional officials broke. Sandakov published a post commenting on the situation in the Chelyabinsk Oblast on his Facebook page following his re-arrest in spring 2016. In particular, he revealed details about a scheme of “the slate club” whereby additional funds collected from members of one party in cash were used for a canvassing campaign. Sandakov himself played the role of “the black cashier”. However, a far more interesting story was the leitmotif behind the publication of the former Deputy Governor concerning his conflict with Igor Akhrimeev, department head at the FSB (the Federal Security Service). Akhrimeev is said to have gained control over much of the information field and manipulated the entire regional political elite by gathering incriminating evidence against them.

Sandakov’s case is indicative of what happens when power changes hands and the federal center turns a blind eye to conflict among the power elite. By the way, “the slate club” failed in 2011 as the Chelyabinsk Oblast was accused of widespread vote rigging. Still, Sandakov and his entourage were quite successful “engineers” of the regional political machine. Without them, UR garnered as little as 38% of the vote with turnout at 44%.

The worst governor and the Shein effect

The Astrakhan Oblast ranked fourth in terms of drop in the number of UR votes (a fall from 20th to 57th place). Viktor Yakovlev - Minister of Housing Services and Utilities and Deputy Prime Minister of the Astrakhan Oblast - was charged with abuse of power immediately following his election. The region has been repeatedly shaken by corruption scandals in recent years. The protagonists were people close to the incumbent Governor Alexander Zhilkin who ranks last in the governor efficiency rankings. Interestingly, Zhilkin typically resorts to preventive measures: whenever someone from his entourage disgraces themselves, the governor not only dismisses them (let me remind you of the case of notorious mayor Mikhail Stolyarov) but he also goes as far as to close down the agency they head (the regional Ministry of Housing Services and Utilities being a good example).

Astrakhan has always been a problematic city for the governor. The city was governed by the team of Mayor Sergey Bozhenov between 2004 and 2011. Zhilkin was at loggerheads with him. Next, the city was at the heart of the scandal involving Oleg Shein who participated in the mayoral election and who went on hunger strike in protest against election rigging. Ultimately, the regional Astrakhan machine survived until the federal election, although not exactly in the best shape due to Shein’s clamorous scandal which could not be swept under the carpet. Moreover, repeated “culling” of high-profile players from the governor team could not go unnoticed. Consequently, 42% voted in favor of UR in the region.

The regional Zaporozhets

The Amur and Omsk Oblasts which slipped 35 and 29 places respectively in the regional “loyalty rankings” were unable to settle conflicts with systemic opposition and consequently UR lost votes to LDPR (Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, in the Amur Oblast) and KPFR (Communist Party of the Russian Federation, in the Omsk Oblast). Both regions were mired by corruption scandals which “shattered” the regional representation of the ruling party. Strong (albeit systemic) opposition candidates Alexander Kravets (Omsk Oblast) and Ivan Abramov (Amur Oblast) entered the fray against this backdrop of unfavorable results for UR. The monolithic regional machine began to falter as the regions became the platform for real political struggle which, nevertheless, remains worlds apart from democratic standards.

Similar stories have played out in more than a dozen regions. If we were to look at absolute, and not relative, figures which take into account the low turnout – almost the entire country is represented by such regions. Possible reasons for the faltering of political machines are that these machines never existed in “immaculate” condition and they succeeded only once. The emergence of this mechanism as a well-established solution dates back to 2007-2008. And although the authorities did manage to obtain the required majority of votes in the absence of any serious problems (which is unsurprising given economic conditions), the 2011 electoral cycle was rather indicative of the inability of regional elites to mobilize the electorate (hence the large-scale election rigging, which could have been avoided had the administrative resource been used properly by the elites). It turns out that in 2011 UR failed to meet the required indicators and had to rely on fraudulent figures.

Still, it would be erroneous to suggest that no political machine has operated in the regions. Perhaps every region attempts to restart its machine in one way or another. This machine resembles an old Zaporozhets car which always stalls on climbs whereas an Audi delivered straight from the showroom obediently responds to the commands of the electoral center. The amendment of the electoral system (the change from weighted voting to mixed) has played a huge role. As a result, UR deputies from single-seat constituencies who managed to efficiently use administrative resources won almost half of parliament seats. However, individual candidates who adopted the mantra “winner takes all” and party list proportional representation do not reflect real voter demand. It seems that the federal authorities need to work on raising awareness in the regions before the next electoral cycle, even given the apparent triumph of the ruling party.

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