The best assessment of Russia’s October 14th local elections was undoubtedly made by political analyst Alexander Kynev: commenting on United Russia’s “victory,” he observed that “the authorities formally receive a high percentage [of support], but there are almost no real people behind it. It is the rating of a void.”
The official figures for Vladimir Putin’s party—which include 71 percent in the Penza Region and 78 percent in the Saratov Region—bear little relation to actual voter preferences. Russians’ verdict on Putin’s electoral system was expressed in the rate of abstention: 87 percent ignored the polls in Vladivostok; 83 percent did not show up in Petropavlovsk; 79 percent failed to turn up in Kaliningrad. Indeed, the authorities themselves sought to minimize the turnout by providing almost no public information on the elections (including on the locations of polling places): it is much easier to rig a vote when few real voters show up.
Their place was taken by virtual “voters.” Poll monitors reported an unusually high percentage of people voting at home (a practice intended for sick and disabled voters; normally no more than 5 percent of the electorate): 20 percent in the Krasnodar Region; 16 percent in the Penza Region; and 13 percent in the Saratov Region. “Carousels,” whereby groups of people were driven around polling places, repeatedly casting their ballots for the regime’s candidates (with the complicity of local electoral officials), were a major factor. In the Siberian city of Barnaul, for instance, as much as a quarter of all the ballots cast reportedly came from organized “carousels.” As a result, support for the opposition Republican Party of Russia–People’s Freedom Party here was artificially reduced from 10 percent to 5.4 percent (still over the minimum threshold: despite the authorities’ efforts, the Republicans will get a seat in the legislature).
Other violations included forcible removals of poll monitors and journalists from vote counting sessions, physical threats against monitors, coerced applications for absentee certificates, and outright rigging. Golos, Russia’s largest independent poll monitoring organization, received more than 800 reports of violations. Many were captured on video, such as this incident of ballot-stuffing in the Krasnodar Region (watch after 2:10). In a well-publicized incident in the town of Khimki (where, according to the official tally, Acting Mayor Oleg Shakhov defeated opposition candidate Yevgenia Chirikova by 48 to 18 percent), all monitors were evicted from a polling place before the count. In the Bryansk Region, where residents were voting for governor, machine-counted tallies showed Communist challenger Vadim Potomsky leading incumbent Governor Nikolai Denin by 67 to 33 percent. According to the overall official results, mostly tabulated manually by electoral officials, Denin defeated Potomsky by 65 to 31 percent.
“I have no illusions about [Putin-style] elections. We cannot change the regime through them. But we can damage it,” stressed opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, noting that it was the participation of anti-Kremlin candidates and their monitors that made the fraud so evident. In Nemtsov’s view, the Russian opposition must continue to take part in elections to reach as many people with its message as possible, and to shed the maximum light on vote stealing.
After all, it was large-scale fraud in last December’s parliamentary election that triggered Russia’s largest pro-democracy demonstrations since 1991. And no authoritarian regime in history has ever fallen as a result of a boycott.