Following protests over the summer against blatant cheating in Moscow local elections on 8 September, the ruling party United Russia did badly.According to Western media, this was thanks to the appeal of liberal blogger Alexey Navalny for “clever voting.” Yet such tactical voting did not reverse the far bigger impact of vote-rigging that still took place. This article argues that the significance of the local elections is that they show that growing domestic opposition is being channelled through the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (hereafter the CPRF).
The background the Moscow city council vote
After the annexation of the Crimea Putin’s rating were boosted, which helped his re-election in the spring of 2018. But his ratings have since nosedived and now stand at about 30%. In expectation of a fiscal crisis along the lines of the default of 1998, the government raised the pension age last year. Erstwhile supporters were incensed and protested throughout the country. In last year’s round of local elections United Russia did badly. Since then in response to the febrile mood in Russia, Navalnyi has moved to the left in words and juxtaposes the gross wealth of the elite to the growing poverty of the Russian population. But he does not have an alternative, consistent anti-capitalist programme and ends up merely exhorting officials not to be corrupt.
By contrast, the force that is gaining at United Russia’s expense is the CPRF.Since the CPRF is represented in the Duma and financially dependent on the state, most observers assume that it is loyal to the Kremlin. Yet it organised demonstrations of over 50,000 in Moscow against last year’s pension reform. This was a significant mobilisation by the standards of recent years and boosted the party’s results in last autumn’s local elections. Even in Rublevka, the enclave of Russia’s richest in Moscow province, the candidate of the CPRF won municipal elections.
Since United Russia’s candidates stood as independents in Moscow to distance themselves from the party’s toxic brand, the CPRF was the strongest competing party in this month’s local elections. But because its candidates were all registered, its leadership initially took a back seat when opposition candidates from blocked from standing.
As Western media reported, thousands of people protested against the blatant cheating of the authorities in an unsanctioned demonstration on 27 July. They were met with a serious police presence. Thousands were arrested in a story that became international news. At a sanctioned demonstration in support of fair elections on 7 August over 50,000 people took part. The resulting clamour created the impression that the authorities were in a crisis situation. Yet the demos and the police response were separate from the actual campaign of candidates that did stand in the election. And here, by blocking opposition candidates and politicising the elections, the authorities gave important momentum tothe CPRF.
The gains of the CPRF in Moscow
Prior to Navalnyi’s last-minute salvo, for months local activists called for tactical voting to unseat United Russia candidates. In district 14 the CPRF stopped short of selecting Sergey Tsukasov at is candidate but did not field a rival one and supported him. After being provisionally registered,Tsukasov was struck off the ballot box at the request of a rival and appealed to the CPRF for voters to back Maxim Kruglov from Yabloko, who ended up winning.
Admittedly, CPRF leader Gennady Zuganov endorsed the Kremlin’s view the protest of 27 Julywas a provocation organised with suspicious foreign support. At an official demonstration on August 17 he scarcely mentioned the elections and called for the consolidation of Russia’s patriotic forces. An openly anti-communist Orthodox priest echoed him. However, at the same rally Valery Rashkin, Duma deputy and local leader of the CPRF in Moscow, called for a concerted anti-government vote at the election. Rashkin’s point was that if the CPRF lifts its finger, people who are critical of the government will rally behind the party.
Subsequently, Ilya Yashin, a liberal candidate in Moscow struck off the register, called on his supporters to vote for the CPRF’s VladislavKolmagorov, thus boosting the latter’s chances of winning and endorsing Rashkin’s claim that the CPRF is the only opposition party going. Yet instead of gaining Yashin’s district at his expense, CPRF candidateKolmagorov was forced to stand down when the police suddenly remembered that hehad not declared a criminal trial he faced in the past (which he did not end up in prison for).
Navalnyi’s own list of recommended candidates illustrated that tactical voting often meant a vote for the CPRF’s candidates. However, over-exaggerated accounts of the influence of his intervention obscure the extent to which the CPRF’s result was affected by cheating. In the north of the city YuryDashkevich from a marginal party called Communists of Russia stood in order to undermine the CPRF’s candidate YuryDashkov, the leader of a tram-workers’ trade union, while in district 16 a young unknown housewife took votes against her namesake and CPRF candidate Alexandra Andreeva.
As for vote-rigging on the day, the CPRF lost seats due to falsifications. For UK readers familiar with postal votes, it is necessary to explain that in Russia there are two ways to vote if you cannot make it on the day. The first is to turn up with your documents in advance, which means that you then cannot vote on the day. The second is to be at home on the day and cast your vote in an urn that a representative of the election commission brings round (“at-home voting,” in Russian “nadomnoegolosovanie”). In the south-west of the city, Olga Sharapova, head doctor at a local hospital got nurses to vote twice for her, both in advance and on the day. Sharapova also promised patients appointments on condition that they voted for her and, naturally, used public funds from the hospital during her campaign. Sharapova’s rival from the CPRF was Sergey Kargansky, the assistant of Yelena Shuvalova, a popular deputy from the CPRF in Moscow city council, who was only narrowly re-elected in her seat due to vote-rigging against her.In many, if not all districts, serious violations of at-home voting have been registered but the authorities are ignoring such cases.
In this context, winning thirteen out of a possible forty-five seats is a decent result for the CPRF. Exaggerated emphasis on Navalnyi’s call for tactical voting is a lame attempt to steal credit from the party for its good result.
The shift to the left in the CPRF
Going forward, given the publicity of the election campaign, it is necessary to keep up as much momentum as possible. One option is to challenge election falsifications via the courts. To be successful, such initiatives need to be backed up by mobilising support in the city. Such militancy can draw onthe example of the youngest and most militant speakers at the rally of 17 August, namely AnastasiyaUdaltsova, a leader of the Left Front and CPRF candidate in Moscow, and Ivan Antokhin, a leader of the Workers Revolutionary Party.
Moreover, in overturning election falsifications, the party can expose examples of criminal activity by United Russia deputies, such as Yelena Nikolaeva,who is hated for forcing people to pay for capital repairs to their buildings even if no repairs take place.Official documents from United Russia reveal that she combined entrepreneurial activity as head of a sweets factory with her work as a Duma deputy, which is illegal. But she was allowed to stand and won in district 23.
The potential of resistance is apparent in spontaneous protests against falsifications in Ulan-Ude, the capital of the republic of Buratiya. Internet footage shows riot police standing by as masked men grab two leading figures from parked vehicles, whose smashed windows are visible later in the clip. The abducted men were driven off in a van without a number-plate, beaten up, and then delivered to hospital in a police escort. Yet such hooligan methods will not stop growing discontent and a shift to the left in the CPRF that will cut the ground of Zuganov’s moderate position from under his feet.
With United Russia a lame duck, the CPRF could expect to take a significant share of the vote on condition that it defended its support from vote-rigging. To achieve such growth, the party needs to pursue a campaign of recruitment based on the programme of renationalisation in the next Duma elections of 2021.