The upcoming Parliamentary elections on the 19th of September put once again the nature and inner workings of Russia’s political system under the spotlight. Contemporary Russia represents a prime example of electoral authoritarianism: a non-democratic regime, whose legitimacy is based upon the regular holding of unfree, unfair, multi-candidate, and multi-party elections. Such elections are important for autocratic rulers in three different respects: (1) as an insurance mechanism comprised of legitimately elected leaders against possible coups, (2) as a tool of political control over elites, whose performance heavily depends upon vote delivery, and (3) as an instrument to reduce the risks of popular discontent in dangerous forms, such as civil unrest. Incumbents and their parties almost never lose these elections due to an extensive and skillful use of state resources for the sake of the incumbents’ electoral machinery. Andreas Schedler once labeled this set of techniques — which enabled autocratic domination in unfair elections — as “ the menu of manipulation”. Drawing on this categorization, one may consider elections in present-day Russia as the full-scale menu of manipulations à la carte, prepared and served at all layers of the hierarchy of government, ranging from the Kremlin leadership to provincial schoolteachers.
The menu of manipulations in electoral autocracies usually involves various “dishes”, which may be grouped around three key elements of unfair elections: manipulations of rules, manipulations of voters, and manipulations of votes. How do these manipulations work in Russia and why are they often so successful? After all, in the 1990s, many elections in Russia were quite competitive and relatively fair, and numerous parties, MPs, regional governors, and city mayors lost powers due to electoral defeats. However, throughout the 2000s and 2010s, the very opportunities for such outcomes of elections were greatly limited — if not completely precluded. In this piece, I will outline the major entries of the menu of manipulations in Russian elections: manipulations of rules, voters, and votes, and I shall briefly discuss their implications for Russian politics.
Manipulations of Rules: The Politics of Exclusion
The major “dish” in the menu of manipulations revolves around electoral rules — laws and by-laws — which regulate electoral governance and set up the conduct of elections. In Russia, these laws were initially adopted in the 1990s and were subject to major changes up until very recently: for instance, between 2016 and 2021 alone they underwent 19 sets of amendments. The formal and informal state regulations of elections (as well as many other activities in Russia) demonstrated an awkward combination of excessive rigidity around many technical details of electoral governance, with the sweeping discretion of electoral commissions in its implementation. In fact, candidates and party lists registrations, campaigns regulations, resolution of disputes among contenders, vote counting, and the recognition of voting results are all in the hands of electoral commissions. Crucially, electoral commissions in Russia are formed by state authorities and are directly (or indirectly) subordinated to their superiors. As such, their lack of independence has turned them into major providers for manipulations of rules and electoral malpractices.
Recent amendments to electoral laws in Russia aimed at filtering or excluding candidates and parties considered unwanted by the Kremlin from participating in elections. This list of people initially involved convicts alone. Now, however, the grounds for exclusion are much broader: they include Russians who have dual citizenship or residence permits in any those who got probation due to politically sensitive criminal cases (such as multiple violations of rules of organization of meetings, rallies, and picketing), those who are labeled as “foreign agents”, among others. Just before the 2021 State Duma elections, Russian citizens involved in vaguely defined “extremist activities” (such as participation in organizations like the Anti-Corruption Foundation, led by Alexey Navalny), also became subject to exclusion from elections, while numerous candidates were denied registration for this reason. Other grounds for exclusion of candidates and parties from electoral contest include their incorrect conduct in the nomination process, wrong reporting of electorally relevant information, and violation of other rules during the campaign. Varieties of manipulation of rules range from the arbitrary denial of registration of independent or party-based candidates, who have to gather a large number of signatures of voters, to heavy constraints around private funding for candidates and parties (under the pretext of “foreign interference into Russian elections”).
It is no wonder that the number of contenders has shrank over time (since 2016, over half of registered political parties in Russia have ceased to exist), while the decline of competitiveness in most of elections has also been registered. Despite the mechanical effects of the politics of exclusion (which is the byproduct of a prohibitively high threshold for access to balloting), the psychological effects of the politics of exclusion contributed to some opposition parties refusing to nominate potentially “toxic” candidates in fear of the prospect of total exclusion from the campaign. At best, alternative parties and candidates (whatever the alternative might be) often tend to campaign rather sluggishly and try to avoid at all costs the risk of punishment for being too active in attracting voters.
In the end, the typical Russian electoral landscape in single-member districts includes a front-runner, heavily endorsed by authorities (either an incumbent or, sometimes, yet another officially approved candidate), and a number of weak contenders who rarely challenge the would-be winner. Yet, sometimes, angry voters tend to punish authorities and vote for alternative candidates against the status quo. Such a tendency contributed to the strategy of “smart voting”, advanced by Navalny and his supporters: the call for voting for other, potentially stronger candidates than those of United Russia. Such a call has brought certain upsides to opposition candidates and also put some limits to the practices of arbitrary exclusion. In fact, authorities are sometimes interested in the proliferation of the opposition in order to split the votes and use “divide and conquer” tactics.
Manipulations of Voters: Mobilization and Demobilization
Voters are different in terms of their loyalty to authoritarian elections. In many instances, voters agree to endorse the status quo at the polls either because they sincerely approve of it, because they do not see any viable alternatives or because of incentives provided by their superiors – state officials, bosses at the offices, and the like. Scholars of Russian elections recognized the widespread practices of workplace mobilization, especially in large state-owned enterprises, where the personnel is more effectively controlled than in small private companies.
In addition, rural voters tend to be more strongly controlled by authorities than their counterparts in big cities. Some ethnic republics in Russia are also well known for their electoral loyalty, often demonstrating an extraordinarily large share of pro-incumbent voting. These forms of regime loyalists’ electoral mobilization are hardly unique to Russia, as many countries experience electoral clientelism and “machine politics” in various forms. However, incentives for electoral loyalty to voters in Russia are primarily negative rather than positive. In other words, loyal Russian voters rarely get any benefits for their “correct” electoral behavior: rather, they are often threatened with punishment for undesired voting results and poor delivery of votes for incumbents.
In this respect, voting turnout serves as the major subject of manipulations. Russian authorities aim at mobilizing electoral loyalists and demobilizing disloyal voters. For instance, educated, young, urban voters, who may pose a threat to the Kremlin’s electoral dominance, are always under the pressure of contradicting signals. On the one hand, they often dislike the regime and prefer viable alternatives to the status quo, but they rarely see such alternatives on the ballot list. On the other hand, they are tempted by electoral absenteeism, if not boycotting the elections altogether: such a strategy was endorsed by a part of the opposition in the wake of 2016 State Duma elections and 2018 presidential elections. As a result, the decline of disloyal voters’ turnout greatly increases the chances of incumbents, especially considering the high turnout among loyal voters, particularly so in some ethnic republics.
State-driven propaganda also effectively contributes to the practices of voters’ manipulation. Even though recent trends tend to undermine the monopoly of the Russian state over information flows because of the rise of independent Internet news outlets, their effects are still relatively limited. In particular, ageing Russian voters (whose turnout tends to be higher than their younger counterparts’) still rely upon state-controlled TV as their major information source. They are more easily indoctrinated by state propaganda, and, being locked into the Kremlin-driven information bubble, don’t intend to protest against the status quo. Moreover, the Russian state resists the spread of unwanted information (such as investigative materials about corruption and the extraordinary wealth of the elites). Using vicious attacks against journalists and activists, Russian authorities have been able to close several independent media outlets just before the upcoming State Duma elections, while certain opposition websites were banned for their “extremism”.
Manipulations of Votes: Getting Desirable Numbers
Discussions around the magnitude of electoral fraud in Russia emerged in the 1990s and became most salient in 2011, when accusations against authorities for mass electoral falsifications triggered the largest wave of mass protests since the Soviet collapse. Although large-scale electoral fraud is considered as a double-edged sword because of the risk of decline in the regime’s mass support, many state officials and electoral commissions were instructed by the Kremlin for , which is why they often faced strong incentives for fraud. According to some estimates, incumbents could easily get re-elected without major fraud, but electoral falsifications also perform other functions than just getting enough voters for re-election. As elections have to demonstrate the lack of political alternatives to the status quo, authorities are genuinely interested in a landslide victory to discourage opposition parties, candidates, and their voters. The maximization of desired numbers by the Kremlin is often driven by these considerations. This was the case during the 2018 presidential elections (when Putin officially received over 50% of votes of the total Russian electorate) or during the 2020 popular voting for amendments to the Russian constitution, which demonstrated an official approval of these amendments by the absolute majority of all Russia’s electorate.
In a large country with almost 100,000 polling stations, a full-scale independent electoral observation is always difficult, though it serves as the strongest antidote against fraudulent elections. According to an experimental study conducted by Russian scholars during the 2011 State Duma elections, the very presence of observers in Moscow’s polling stations contributed to a major decline in support for United Russia. Since then, the voting process in polling stations has been video recorded in order to increase transparency, although many instances of stuffing ballot boxed by pre-filled ballot papers have been registered.
However, more recently, the Central Electoral Commission imposed major limits to video observations of elections in terms of access and the number of polling stations under control. Also, the Russian authorities conspicuously put harsh limits to a number of official, international electoral observers (under the guise of pandemic-related constraints) which ultimately led to OSCE representatives being unable to observe the 2021 State Duma elections. At the same time, the Russian authorities tend to rely upon officially approved GONGOs (such as the state-controlled Public Chamber) in order to get desired reports on electoral observations as a proof of the legitimacy of results.
However, the biggest threat posed by vote manipulation may lie ahead. Since 2019, Russian authorities have launched a step-by-step development of online voting as a would-be substitute for traditional ballot papers. In the 2021 State Duma elections, online voting will be practiced in six Russian regions, including the city of Moscow, and it is planned to be spread across the country in the future. The initial use of IT voting techniques has raised numerous doubts around the integrity of the procedure, including the calculations of votes, and many specialists are heavily concerned about these liabilities. The major problem is that online voting is completely beyond the control of independent observers and can easily became a target of widespread, blatant fraud.
From the viewpoint of the Kremlin, the menu of manipulations à la carte has worked reasonably well in Russia since 2011, as elections do not pose major challenges to the status quo. Even though in some instances incumbents have lost elections to opposition parties’ representatives and/or independent candidates, these episodes remains relatively rare and hardly represent major risks to the preservation of the status quo. Still, some instances of unexpected electoral outcome are notorious, such as the case of Khabarovsk, where the popularly elected governor Sergey Furgal — who won the race against the incumbent — was later fired and imprisoned for political reasons; prompting mass protests in the region.
As of yet, there are no reasons to expect that the 2021 State Duma elections will completely deviate from this tendency, although one should not exclude surprises. In the long run, however, the extent to which an electoral authoritarian regime will be able to endlessly use this menu of manipulations is not as clear, adding new “dishes” to the table and updating the new techniques of unfairness.
As Lincoln stated, “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time”. To what extent this maxim is relevant for authoritarian elections – in Russia and elsewhere – remains to be seen.
The opinions expressed are those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of ISPI