Strategic voting and the regime’s response in Russia

Mikhail Turchenko,
Associate Professor,
European University at St. Petersburg,

The State Duma elections are important for Russian authorities. By having a majority in the lower chamber of the parliament via a dominant party, United Russia (UR), the Kremlin maintain an image of the regime strength and invincibility. To control the legislative elections, Russian authorities rely on biased state media, candidate filtering, voter intimidation, and electoral fraud. Pork barrel politics has been using to enlist the loyalty of the officially allowed opposition, especially the one presenting at the parliamentary level. But even in such conditions, strategic protest voting may be efficient.

According to the official results, in the 2011 Duma elections, UR secured 49.31% of the vote and received 77 seats less than in the previous ones. Such a modest UR’s performance in 2011 was, above all, due to a strategy, advocated by Alexei Navalny, a leader of the Russian opposition, who asked citizens to vote ‘for anyone but UR’. This strategy was the first attempt of anti-regime strategic voting in Putin’s Russia. Apart from being easy to understand, this strategy was also easy to be implemented, as all 450 State Duma deputies were elected by the list proportional representation (PR) system in one multimember district at that time.

In 2014, after the annexation of Crimea, the Russian authorities gained an increased level of popular support. This rally-around-the-flag effect coupled with the electoral reform, which reintroduced a mixed-member majoritarian system with half of the seats to be distributed in single-member districts (SMDs) by plurality rule and the other half – by the list PR system, helped the Kremlin to secure a two-thirds majority for UR in the 2016 Duma contest. But before the 2021 Duma elections, the political landscape in the country has changed. UR approval rating reached its worst pre-electoral values, less than 30%, and the Russian opposition had a strategy to challenge its dominance – the ‘smart vote’.

The ‘smart vote’ campaign was proposed by Navalny in November 2018. It worked by advising opposition-minded voters to cast their votes for the strongest non-UR candidates in given electoral districts. To get a ‘smart vote’ recommendation a voter can utilize one of the online resources developed by Navalny’s team. The ‘smart vote’ was first implemented in the 2019 subnational elections and had a visible effect. As Turchenko and Golosov demonstrated in their 2021 Post-Soviet Affairs article, a candidate’s inclusion onto the ‘smart vote’ list boosted her result by about 7% of the popular vote in the course of the 2019 municipal elections in St. Petersburg.

The Kremlin responded to the ‘smart vote’ challenge. Apart from the wave of repressions towards Navalny personally and his allies and supporters, the regime launched an attack on the ‘smart vote’ infrastructure. Eleven days before the start of the 2021 Duma elections which were set to be held from 17 to 19 September, Roskomnadzor, Russia’s federal censorship agency, blocked the ‘smart vote’ website. At the same time, a Moscow court prescribed Google and Yandex stop displaying the term ‘smart voting’ in their search results. On 17 September, during the first day of voting, Google and Apple deleted the apps with the ‘smart vote’ advises from Google Play and App Store under the pressure of Russian officials. Google blocked the ‘smart vote’ recommendations on Google Docs and YouTube as well. Telegram terminated the ‘smart vote’ bot.

According to the official results, the UR list has received 49.82% of popular support, and UR-backed candidates won 198 out of 225 SMDs. This gave the party 324 seats in sum. At the same time, a Russian election watchdog Golos has reported numerous cases of voter intimidation and ballot-box stuffing, while Sergey Shpil’kin, a Russian physicist, assessed the ‘real’ result of the UR list about 31%–33%. At the moment, it is hard to quantitatively assess the impact of the ‘smart vote’ on the results of the 2021 Duma elections, but it seems that the campaign was efficient at least in Moscow. In eight out of fifteen Moscow’s SMDs, the ‘smart vote’-backed candidates would win if not electronic voting, which biased the results in favor of the administrative candidates.

By relying on political repression and having conducted fraudulent elections, the Kremlin kept its control over the lower chamber of the Russian parliament. But even official returns show that UR does not enjoy the support of the majority. Real wages of Russians are still lower than they were in 2013, before the annexation of Crimea, while the rally-around-the-flag effect is exhausted. Hence, future electoral victories of the regime are not taken for granted even under the skewed level playing field. It seems that the Kremlin has no option but to rely on even broader repression inside the country to keep its grip on power.

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