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23 September 2016

The silence of the lambs?

What is the reason behind Russians’ waning interest in parliamentary elections?

As expected, Sunday’s election to the State Duma of the Russian Federation did not produce any significant surprises. How could it be otherwise? Election results are always known beforehand in electoral authoritarian regimes (“electoral authoritarianism” usually implies that regimes maintain the illusion of competitive elections at local and national levels, yet deprive the electoral institution of its effectiveness in practice; deliberately inequitable “rules of the game” are laid down for participants in order to ensure victory for the ruling powers regardless of voter preferences). United Russia won a constitutional majority whereas the so-called liberal opposition (Yabloko and PARNAS) suffered a crushing defeat having secured less than 3% of the overall vote.

It was also clear in advance that illegal means would be employed on election day. According to the movement for the defense of voters’ rights Golos, incidents of direct rigging were observed at a number of polling stations: ballot box stuffing; carousel voting; exertion of pressure by executives on voters; illegal campaigning; transportation of voters; violations of the rights of observers, commission members and media representatives; violations of vote counting procedures. Altogether, 3,760 reports of election day irregularities have been recorded on the map of violations as of today. The authorities have obviously chosen to ignore the majority of these reports. Taking all this into account, the words of the head of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly observation mission Marietta Tidei who said that the Central Electoral Commission, under the new leadership of Ella Pamfilova, was operating in a “transparent and professional manner having earned the trust of stakeholders” are somewhat surprising.

On the one hand, the number of identified instances of direct rigging was fewer than in 2011. On the other hand, the number of observers present during this election was half. The extent of control over vote counting and the voting procedure itself was also lower this time around. It is practically impossible to determine the exact proportion of fraudulent votes among the 54% of votes which were cast in favor of United Russia according to official sources. Approximate figures therefore have to be used instead. Voting analysis conducted by physicist Sergey Shpilkin, the PolitProsvet award winner for a series of articles which provided statistical analysis on the results of elections held in Russia in recent years, is most interesting. According to his estimates, approximately 45% of votes cast in favor of United Russia were falsified and the overall turnout was artificially inflated by 11%. These data suggest that United Russia’s share of the vote was, in fact, 40%.

It would seem that there is nothing remarkable about the latest election: same fraud, same use of administrative pressure as before and similar results. From the point of view of further analysis, however, it is noteworthy that we have witnessed the lowest turnout in contemporary Russian history. Even the official, overstated turnout was at a level of 48% – 12% lower than in 2011. In fact, as few as 35% and 32.5% presented at the Moscow and St. Petersburg polling stations, respectively (61% in Moscow and 55% in St. Petersburg in 2011). The turnout in Irkutsk, Tomsk, Novosibirsk Oblasts and the Perm Krai was less than 35%. The paradox of the situation lies in the fact that, in August, personal incomes plummeted to their lowest level in eight years and hence, logic would have it that the aggravation of social problems should have led to increased voter interest in the elections. Given that this was not the case, what were the reasons behind the low turnout?

To answer this question, one should first of all look at the variables which usually influence the behavior of “free” voters (i.e. those who are not in patron-client relations with the government).

Let us start with living standards. The UN Human Development Index points to a correlation between well-being and electoral behavior. Thus, on the whole, citizens who enjoy higher living standards participate in elections more actively. However, voter turnouts in Moscow and St. Petersburg in Sunday’s election buck this trend since citizens with an above average standard of living are mainly concentrated in these cities. One cannot say that these are apolitical individuals: it was precisely these people who formed the backbone of the protest movement in 2011-2012. Therefore, their absenteeism should be considered separately from the main mass of people who ignored the election. As a rule, these “well-off city dwellers” are well-informed when it comes to what’s going on in the country. They keep up to speed with politics and are critical of the current government. Their non-participation in the election was a form of protest, a refusal to enter into a dialogue with the illegitimate authorities. Some members of the liberal opposition actively encouraged such behavior and it was precisely the absence of these votes that prevented Yabloko from overcoming the electoral threshold. However, the number of such passive protesters in Russia is negligible. Hence, this rational boycott is definitely not the reason behind the low turnout.

The next variable is individual involvement in political life; level of awareness. According to Henry Milner’s civic literacy theory, the key factor which determines the level of an individual’s participation in voting is access to political knowledge (information about the electoral process, party manifestos etc.). Voters increasingly participate in elections in environments which offer broader opportunities to become acquainted with real policies (through the media, election campaign materials etc.). Political literacy in Russia is at a rudimentary level. Exposure to the pro-Kremlin media provides viewers with information about international developments while the domestic agenda is under-represented. The latest election campaign largely took place in the background (this is precisely what the Kremlin was counting on when it decided to move the election to September), although the debates were more heated and critical of the authorities compared to those preceding previous elections (suffice it to recall Maltsev, for example, who pronounced the necessity to “impeach” Putin on air). It seems that the political literacy of the population remains unchanged compared to 2011 on the whole. Hence, it is not possible to attribute the drop in voter turnout in Russia in the latest election to this variable. “Internal migrants” tired of the negativist media rhetoric who have deliberately sought to isolate themselves from the information flow constitute an exception to this rule.

The third variable which determines the level of turnout of “free” voters was highlighted by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA). This is the level of political freedoms and civil liberties. It is noted that voter turnout is higher in countries rated by Freedom House as “free” as opposed to “not free” or “partly free” countries. Russia was listed as a “not free” state both in the 2011 and 2016 ratings. Moreover, the state’s crackdown on human rights, freedom of speech and the media in the aftermath of the 2011-2012 protests could not go unnoticed: Russia’s rating fell from 5.5 in 2011 to 6.0 in 2016 (on a scale of 1 to7 with 7 being the least free). Under such circumstances, the very notion of “rights” is eliminated from discourse and is reduced to a philosophical-and-abstract category rather than a real one. The “right” to vote might therefore be replaced by a “duty/ obligation” to vote (whereby a mechanism for punishing absentees is in place) so as to avoid it becoming devalued. In my opinion, the latter has occurred in Russia as the “vote” is no longer a right nor has it become a duty, yet it has transformed into something awkward and unnecessary, something unworthy of half an hour of one’s weekend.

This story does have one silver lining though: It is clear for all to see that the approval rating of United Russia is largely based on patron-client relations whereby dependent voters are imputed to vote for the ruling party in exchange for benefits. In other words, United Russia’s “active” electorate comprises public sector workers and other categories of citizens dependent on the state (prisoners, patients of mental hospitals and inhabitants of residential care facilities; for example, 85% and up to 90% of those in pre-trial detention centers and mental hospitals in Moscow participated in the election) as well as residents of the “zones of electoral anomalies” (Chechnya, Dagestan, the Kemerovo Oblast, Bashkortostan etc.) where the local heads of administration, by acting as local “patrons”, ensure that the voting quota is met. The majority of “free” Russians abstained from voting in a bid to show that they are not in client relations with the Kremlin and are not indebted which gives a certain optimism about the apperance of the request for change in this environment in the furture.    

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