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Navalny’s Tactical Voting Campaign Upsets Kremlin

Maxim Trudolyubov
Photo of polling station from the Moscow City Duma Elections. Source: Wikimedia Commons


The spate of regional elections that Russia had over the first weekend of September were not particularly interesting for voters—but for the Kremlin, they were far more important. In an indirect confirmation of the government’s deep interest in the regional elections, on Thursday, September 12, hundreds of police officers and investigators raided dozens of offices that the anticorruption crusader Alexei Navalny had established across Russia.

Navalny said that the cause of the sudden countrywide operation against his Anti-Corruption Foundation, complete with searches and confiscations of computers and other equipment, was the campaign he led during the elections. Although the Kremlin’s ruling party actually won almost all the races, one campaign—or one particular aspect of that campaign—did not look good for the current administration’s political management.

One of the regional elections was for the Moscow city council, a largely powerless body that nonetheless was significant because of its access to all the details of Moscow’s 2.6 trillion ruble ($40.2 billion) budget. A tactical voting campaign led by Navalny did not deprive the ruling United Russia of its majority in the city parliament, but it did take mandates away from a number of high-profile loyalists.

United Russia, the Russian political party formerly led by President Vladimir Putin and now chaired by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, did not field any candidates openly because of the party’s low approval rates. However, it did run a number of covert candidates. Not a single Anti-Corruption Foundation candidate was allowed to run in the Moscow city council elections, but Navalny still managed to take part in the race for seats. He suggested that his followers go and vote for any candidate whose chances of winning were second or comparable to those of United Russia’s candidates. Dubbed the “Smart Vote,” this tactic of voter coordination worked and might prove an important feature in Russia’s future elections.

Many activists were busy identifying the covert United Russia candidates during the campaign, but Navalny’s group went further; it compiled a list of political contestants, regardless of their affiliations, who had chances to beat the party-in-power’s candidates in their precincts. This approach effectively created a virtual additional “entry” on Muscovites’ ballots and many did seem to go along and vote in accordance with Navalny’s recommendation.

The campaign was controversial even among the opposition-minded Russians because many of them loathed the prospect of voting for communists or spoilers. Voter turnout was low, less than 22 percent, which probably means that even fewer people would have shown up to the polls without the tactical voting that attracted some debates in the independent public sphere. But since the whole idea was to pick off as many votes as possible from city-approved candidates, to a degree the campaign did succeed. Twenty out of 45 seats on the Moscow city council went to candidates on Navalny’s list. United Russia thus kept the majority but it will have to deal with a number of uncomfortable council members who might ask questions or go public with some of Mayor Sergey Sobyanin’s less-publicized decisions.

Those results are modest indeed, but the past weekend’s experience may prove more influential than it might seem at the moment. Hundreds of thousands of people in Moscow learned firsthand that they actually could make their votes count. Some of the races were very close and individual votes did weigh a lot in those circumstances. Those voters realized that even though they did not have a real candidate to vote for, their vote need not be wasted as a result. They still could upset the ruling party by denying a win to its candidates. However modest the experiment or the results, many Russians learned that voter coordination matters. No single future election in Russia will be the same. Both opposition leaders and the Kremlin campaign managers will have to take into account this new possibility: a coordinated vote.

In today’s Russia, elections are events that are meant to showcase the administration’s facility at filtering the candidates and mobilizing the citizens to vote for the Kremlin-approved candidate. Every year, the government designates a single day in early September for all regional and municipal elections to take place simultaneously. The presidential election is the only one that is held on a separate day, in March, every six years.

Pro-Kremlin analysts normally do not try to hide the fact that there is no real choice in the procedure. They judge the success or failure of electoral cycles based on the administrative logic described above, not on some pretense of choice. Officials normally pay lip service to those events as being “elections,” but they know full well that their responsibility is to prevent any outsiders from being registered and make sure that no surprises anger their watchful superiors. During this year’s chain of gubernatorial elections, all of the anointed candidates were duly “elected,” albeit at the expense of all potential competition, however tame. Those who did not have the government’s seal of approval were disqualified at early stages—or even at the last minute, as was the case in St. Petersburg. A Communist Party candidate, the movie director Vladimir Bortko, was forced to withdraw a week before the vote when the Kremlin-designated candidate’s campaign realized that their lead would not allow them to win in the first round.

Paradoxically, although this year’s campaign went better for the Kremlin than last year’s, it caused some soul-searching among some of the Kremlin’s supporters. Anton Krasovsky, a journalist and gay activist who has worked for Kremlin-sponsored projects and who publicly opposed Navalny, wrote in Telegram: “They say: everyone [we wanted] has won these elections. Everyone is happy. Everyone is celebrating… Enough of that. It was Alexei Navalny who won the elections in Moscow. To be more precise, it wasn’t even him: it was his word alone that was enough to force entire precincts to vote for completely useless unknowns.” On Navalny’s side, he suggested, people were inspired: they argued, discussed, and shared their bulletins online. By choosing to go against police brutality, they got a chance to act like heroes. Nothing of the kind could be seen among Sobyanin’s voters. Krasovsky urged his side to “simulate” an intraparty protest, concluding: “Today people will only vote for a hero. Give people heroes! Give life a chance to create an opportunity for heroism.” Without that, he said, the Kremlin side can be sure that it will lose the elections in 2021 and 2024.

This electoral season, the Kremlin’s political management had to prove to itself that it was fully in control. Judging from the results, the Kremlin succeeded fully, and yet a massive police operation against one of Russia’s few opposition leaders suggests unease and anger beneath the façade of official unity.

About the Author

Maxim Trudolyubov

Maxim Trudolyubov

Senior Advisor; Editor-in-Chief, Russia File;
Editor-at-Large, Meduza

Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Meduza. Mr. Trudolyubov was the editorial page editor of Vedomosti between 2003 and 2015. He has been a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times since the fall of 2013. Mr. Trudolyubov writes The Russia File blog for the Kennan Institute and oversees special publications.

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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more