The September 10th gubernatorial elections: what’s the deal?

By Fabrice Deprez

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On September 10th, 16 Russian regions will hold gubernatorial elections. Nearly all of the leading candidates were named acting governors by Vladimir Putin either this year or last, and there is little doubt that they will secure victory. But the vote, less than a year before the presidential election, will represent a key test for the Kremlin and its gubernatorial favorites. Here’s everything you need to know about the elections, the people running in them, and the regions in which they’re occurring.

Where are they happening?

Elections are being held in 16 regions, or more accurately, 15 regions and one city. Sevastopol, like Saint Petersburg, has a governor instead of a mayor. These regions range geographically from the western enclave of Kaliningrad to the Buryatia region (which borders Mongolia), and well most are economically less well off, a few regions such as Belgorod, Sverdlovsk or Tomsk are doing a bit better.

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Sevastopol, and Crimea more generally, is the outlier. Its first gubernatorial election is being held while the Crimean economy is struggling to catch up with the rest of the country after its annexation in 2014. According to data from Russia’s state statistics agency, Rosstat, Sevastopol has the lowest regional GDP in the country: 93,000 rubles ($1,500) per capita in 2015 compared to the average 443,000 rubles ($7,500) across Russia.

Along with Sevastopol, five of the regions where gubernatorial elections are being held have a regional GDP lower than 225,000 rubles (nearly half the Russian average): Buryatia, Mordovia and Mari El republics, and the Kirov and Saratov oblasts. None of these regions have a GDP higher than the Russian average, although Belgorod comes close. Of the 16 regions, the Siberian republic of Buryatia also has the highest unemployment rate (9.6% in 2016, per Rosstat data) and the third-highest regional debt as a percentage of its revenue, according to data compiled by Russian economist Natalya Zubarevich. With a debt some 95% the size of its yearly revenue, it is far from Mordovia (165%) but closer to the Novgorod oblast (110%).

Two particular regions set themselves apart in one key aspect: Sverdlovsk, in the Urals, and Yaroslav, about 250km north of Moscow, are classified as “donor-regions”, meaning that they send more money to the federal budget than they receive. In both regions, federal subsidies make up less than 10% of the overall budget. On the other side of the spectrum, nearly 70% of Crimea’s budget comes from Moscow.

Despite their differences, Sverdlovsk and Crimea are similar in one respect: according to the Center For Social and Workers Rights, both regions are among those most prone to protests. Seven labor protests took place in the Sverdlovsk region in the first half of 2017, and five took place in Crimea. The Center for Economic and Politic Reforms, which monitors all protests – not just work-related ones – places the Sverdlovsk region as the fifth most susceptible to protest of Russia’s 85 subjects. Crimea is not included in the list.

Can we expect any exciting face-offs?

The 2015 gubernatorial election in the Irkutsk region saw the surprise victory of the communist Sergei Levchenko against the acting governor and United Russia candidate Sergei Yeroshchenko. Could this be repeated on Sunday?

In short, probably not. Barring some massive surprise, each candidate favored by the Kremlin should, according to polls, secure a comfortable victory. Not even run-offs are likely, according to polls conducted by the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM).

Since the direct election of local governors was reinstated in 2012, the Kremlin has perfected the art of maximizing the chances of its preferred candidates. In most cases, the elections now look like a simple confirmation in Moscow’s “rotation of cadres”. Russian political scientist Arkady Lyubarev compiled some data on his blog which illustrates the lack of competition since gubernatorial elections were brought back:

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In the Sverdlovsk region, local outlet Znak.com went so far as to discuss the danger of a “Chechen result” – that is, of the current governor, Evgeny Kuyvashev, being elected with more than 75% of the vote. This exceeds the 70% Putin is expected to receive next year, and Znak sources say this could carry political risks for the governor.

One powerful tool allowing the Kremlin to ensure the victory of its favored candidate, despite the introduction of direct election, is the appointment of acting governors, who tend to get immediate name recognition and the implicit support of the federal authorities. This is enough in many cases to win them elections.

So who are these Kremlin-appointed candidates?

Most of the leading candidates taking part in the elections are in power as the result of a reshuffle that swept through Russia’s state apparatus in 2016-17. 15 out of 16 were appointed between October 2016 and April 2017 (though four of those have been in place since 2012 and resigned in 2017, before being immediately appointed acting governors). Mostly technocrats, they are also much younger than the typical governor: the average age of the acting governors (excluding those elected in 2012) is 44 years old, with 30 year old Kaliningrad governor Anton Alikhanov the youngest among them.

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The newly appointed governors also represent a mix of officials or politicians with local connections, and “varyangi” [1], outsiders sent by the federal center. The former include figures such as Maksim Rechetnikov, appointed in the Perm Krai in February 2017, who worked in the local administration from 2000 to 2009 before joining the “reserve of cadres” of the presidency; and Artur Parfenchikov, who worked in the Procurer’s office of the Karelia republic from 1987 to 2006 and was appointed as governor of the region in 2016.  The outsider varyangi tend to lack connections with the local elite and come from far-off regions: the acting Kaliningrad governor is, for example, originally from Abkhazia.

The outlier here is Yevgeny Savchenko, the 67 year old current governor of the Belgorod region. He is not just the only non-appointed governor of this election, but also a veteran of regional politics who has led the Belgorod oblast, which borders Ukraine, since 1993.

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What about the opposition?

Mostly, it failed to enter the race.

Of the 75 candidates competing in the elections, 59 do not belong to United Russia, and 20 of those are not members of the “systemic opposition”, i.e. from parties represented in the Duma. The competition is, however, pretty theoretical.

Three months ago, two regions were described as potentially problematic for the Kremlin-favored candidates: the Buryatia Republic and the Sverdlovsk oblast. In the former, the Communist Party candidate, Vyacheslav Markhaev, appeared to have a chance against an acting governor appointed only this February and is therefore not too well known. In the Urals, Yevgeny Roizman, the controversial but combative mayor of Ekaterinburg also looked able to take advantage of his high profile and the rising discontent in the region, marked by an increase in protest action. Roizman announced his intention to run with the support of the Yabloko party in May, despite opposition from the party’s local head.

But both Roizman and Markvahev’s bids failed before they got off the ground when the Central Electoral Commission refused to register them as candidates. Markhaev was the only member of his party to face this fate out of the 15 regions in which the Communist Party stood a candidate, while each of the three candidates Yabloko attempted to register was rejected by the electoral commission. PARNAS, another opposition party, managed to run a candidate in just one region.

Why were they rejected?

Both Roizman and Markhaev’s rejections fell prey to the municipal filter. The mechanism was officially created to prevent less serious candidates from competing but critics say it has been used by authorities and local elites to keep opposition candidates out.

The municipal filter forces every would-be candidate to obtain signatures from 5% to 10% of the regions’ local deputies in support of their campaign. Roizman failed to meet the quota, while signatures collected by Markhaev were declared invalid because the local deputies had also given their signatures to other candidates. But while the candidate from the well-established Communist Party failed to register his candidacy in Buryatya, the much smaller Communists of Russia party registered a candidate after collecting signatures from United Russia deputies.

This happened across several regions, with little-known candidates getting signatures from local deputies “at the request of their superiors”, while politicians from more established parties failed to collect the required numbers. These lesser-known candidates can be used to either give the appearance of a competitive election or, if necessary, to split the votes (the age-old tactic of “spoiler parties”).

A report on candidate registration written by the Committee for Citizen Initiatives – an organization founded by former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin – argues that the municipal filter acts as a political tool to prevent competition:

“Many potential candidates with a high profile and great electoral experience do not participate in the electoral process. On the contrary, many registered candidates who overcame the municipal filter, allegedly by themselves, are actually weak candidates and collect an extremely small percentage of votes in the elections. It can be argued that, in its present form, the municipal filter does not protect elections from “fake” candidates, but, on the contrary, leads to a situation where regional elites often facilitate the registration of only low-profile opponents instead of real competitors”.

How much of this is local politics and how much comes directly from the Kremlin is more difficult to assess, since local elites often have a direct interest in maintaining the status quo. Either way, the result will be the same: on September 10, each governor appointed by Vladimir Putin will likely keep his position.

What’s the point of these elections, then?

The September 10 gubernatorial elections will be looked at in the context of the upcoming presidential election, just six months away.

Russian political analyst Ivan Davydov notes that the Kremlin will be using the gubernatorial elections as a “dress rehearsal” for the presidential election. Hence, according to sources quoted by Vedomosti, the Kremlin has left very little to chance, sending its own people to lead the campaigns of the newly-appointed governors.

Assuming that there is little doubt of the result, as in the case in the presidential election, the key metric will be voter turnout. Polls by the Russian Institute for Democracy Studies claim that the average turnout should be between 30% and 40% of registered voters, with only four regions – Sevastopol, Mordovia, Belgorod and Saratov – expected to surpass 40%.

The presidential administration said in spring that turnout would not be a priority for it in five regions (Sverdlovsk, Yaroslav, Kaliningrad, Kirov and Buryatia), either because “serious competition” was expected (in Sverdlovsk and Buryatia) or because local elites had “not accepted the ‘appointed varyangi’” from the Kremlin. But now that competition is almost non-existent, it seems the Kremlin is pushing again for a higher turnout in the regions. Russian media widely reported an alleged attempt by the Kremlin to boost turnout among the youth using Russia’s most popular dating site, Mamba. If the administration was behind the attempt, it could be read as a pre-presidential election test to see if Russian youth could be lured to the polls by using social networks. The Kremlin will be working toward a “70/70” outcome next year: a 70% turnout delivering 70% of the vote to the “main candidate” (the euphemism is still in fashion, as Putin has not officially declared himself candidate yet).

For the young, technocratic governors going through their first electoral race, it will also represent a test of their ability to mobilize their constituency and their region’s resources to bring about a favorable result for themselves, and by extension, the Kremlin’s “main candidate” next year.

In this context, another criterion that could be used by the Kremlin to assess the success of the election is the absence of conflict and scandal. This could be either scandals linked to the elections themselves – e.g. carousel voting, where voters are unlawfully transported to multiple voting sites – or to regional issues such as corruption scandals and protests. As Russian media starts buzzing with rumors of a new gubernatorial reshuffle set to happen this fall, the other governors will be paying careful attention to how the elections are handled.

[1] ‘Varyangi,’ or ‘varangians’ in English, is the term used by Greeks and Slavs for Vikings, who held sway over the early Kievan Rus. Byzantine Empires were protected by the Varangian Guard, made of hired vikings.

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