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How to Vote When There’s No Election

Following the events of September 24, when Vladimir Putin announced his intention to remain in power for another twelve years, it is becoming increasingly likely that the next change of government in Russia will take place outside of the official “electoral” schedule. Growing discontent, falling oil prices, likely economic downturn, and a rigid authoritarian system devoid of checks and balances—or even “steam valves”—do not make for a stable combination. Opposition leader and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov called Putin’s decision “the catalyst for civil unrest and possible revolutionary events” in the country.

But there is still the matter of December 4. Though the “parliamentary election” will lack any real competition, meaning, or consequences (its results, in all likelihood, are already being drafted in Vladislav Surkov’s department), it will nevertheless be an imposing spectacle, with millions of voters going to polling places across the country, and with the world’s press—and even some international observers—in attendance (the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe is sending a team of election monitors). Russia’s opposition supporters, whose parties have been barred from the ballot, are considering the best way to register their protest on “election” day.

The leaders of pro-democracy forces have yet to agree on a common plan. Last weekend, delegates of a national civic forum—a three-day meeting that brought together hundreds of opposition activists from across the political spectrum, civil society representatives, cultural figures, and former members of Parliament—discussed the three main options presented by the leaders of Russia’s opposition.

The first proposal, put forward by anticorruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, calls for voting for any party except Vladimir Putin’s United Russia. The logic is that once United Russia loses its large majority in the Duma, the Kremlin’s political monopoly will be broken, and the legislature will cease being a rubber stamp. This analysis assumes that votes will be counted fairly, and that the other registered parties are independent from the Kremlin—a doubtful proposition on both counts. Furthermore, many supporters of the “Navalny method” take his call to “vote for any party” to mean “vote for any party with a chance”—that is, with a chance to get into the Duma in the present system of “managed democracy.” In other words, for the Communist Party that openly praises Stalin and justifies the Gulag; or for the party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, considered jester by some and ultranationalist by others. Neither option is—even tactically—acceptable to the vast majority of Russia’s liberal voters.

The second option, presented by United Civil Front leader and former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, is an outright boycott of the poll. According to his view, voting for one of the registered parties implies accepting the legitimacy of the “election.” Since there are no real elections, Kasparov argues, there is nothing to participate in. Instead, Kasparov urges his supporters to remove their names from official voter rolls (by writing to local electoral commissions), and participate in a new “online parliament” that he launched over the weekend with the aim of developing an independent political discourse outside of official structures. Opponents of the boycott argue that this tactic is too inactive, and that it will be impossible to distinguish principled absentees from those who simply don’t care.

The third way—proposed by Boris Nemtsov, whose Popular Freedom Party was the latest in the line of political groups that were denied access to the ballot—seeks to combine the first two proposals: be active, but without accepting the legitimacy of the “election.” Nemtsov’s “Vote Against All” movement calls on Russians to come to the polling places on December 4 and spoil their ballots—the only way to reject all participants since the “against all” option was abolished in 2006. Proponents of this idea refer to the last local “elections” in East Germany on May 7, 1989, when up to 10 percent of voters crossed out their ballots. Protests over the obvious rigging of results (the official tally of crossed-out ballots was 1.15 percent) helped galvanize the anti-Communist forces. In Nemtsov’s view, only a large showing by voters who reject the entire system—not just one of its participants—will send a clear message to the regime. This approach, of course, also assumes that there are enough independent observers at polling places to indicate, at least approximately, the actual—as opposed to the officially declared—number of spoiled ballots.

In a straw poll taken at the forum, 57 percent of participants chose the “Navalny method” of voting for any party except Putin’s; 24 percent backed Kasparov’s call for a boycott; and 19 percent went with Nemtsov’s “vote against all” proposal. Proportions may shift as December approaches, but disagreements are likely to continue until the polling day. Not that it matters. As liberal columnist Alexander Podrabinek recently observed, “all the suggested methods of behavior are acceptable … none has any practical significance. Whatever method you choose, the result will be drawn up by [the authorities]. Calm down, stop worrying, and do whatever looks best to you.”

Again, the next change of government in Russia will likely take place outside of the official “electoral” schedule.

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