Oops! How Moscow’s municipal election turned into a headache for city hall; The unexpected success of independent candidates in Moscow’s recent council elections may be relative – but it’s real enough.

Aerial View of Moscow From Beyond Stadium, file photo

(opendemocracy.net – Ivan Davydov – September 20, 2017)

Ivan Davydov is a Russian journalist and writer. His articles can be seen at The New Times, Republic, Inliberty and Gazeta.ru, among other publications.

The Russian opposition enjoyed an unexpectedly decent showing at the municipal council elections in Moscow last week. The Yabloko political party, having broken with its own traditions by participating under the umbrella of Dmitry Gudkov’s United Democrats coalition, secured 176 seats, while a further 108 were won by independents, the majority of which have been working together with Gudkov. Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia movement, which set up a school for prospective municipal deputies, also contributed to the overall result. There’s even been talk of a “united opposition victory” at the election.

On balance, however, this talk is premature: United Russia candidates won 1152 seats out of an available 1502. In the wake of the elections, city newspapers controlled by Moscow mayor Sergey Sobyanin came out with identical editorials proclaiming a “triumphant victory for United Russia”. They can’t exactly be accused of lying, either: winning over 75% of all seats is certainly a triumph.

Furthermore, the opposition’s showing isn’t sufficient to overcome the so-called “municipal filter” at next year’s mayoral elections: candidates must enlist the support of 110 deputies from 110 districts, but the oppositionists are represented on only 66 district councils.

System failure

At first glance, the results of this year’s municipal elections aren’t all that different from what we witnessed in 2012. Back then, United Russia also garnered some 75% of seats, with the rest being divided between nominal oppositionists.

In 2012, however, around half of all opposition seats went to the Communist Party. A year later, the Communists were able to overcome the municipal filter at the mayoral elections. In 2017, the Communists have only 43 seats. The respective performances of the other nominal opposition parties were even more dismal: 10 seats for Sergei Mironov’s A Just Russia, a mere two for Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democrats.

Russia’s official party system, purely ornamental in nature, is edging predictably towards collapse. In the years following the annexation of Crimea, the nominal parliamentary opposition, throwing itself into raptures over Russia’s – and Putin’s – successes, is no longer regarded by voters as meaningfully different from United Russia. The upshot? All-round failure in the parliamentary elections of 2016, and a constitutional majority for United Russia in the Duma.

The Moscow elections have shown that voters have no need of pseudo-oppositionist pseudo-parties at the metropolitan level either. But in contrast to Russia’s federal-level elections, the systemic opposition has now lost (considerable) votes to the non-systemic opposition as well.

But that’s not the main thing, of course. In 2012, United Russia enjoyed no majority in a mere three Moscow districts. That number has now increased to 28. Furthermore, certain local councils have no United Russia representation at all. A notable case in point is the Gagarinsky district, where Vladimir Putin is formally registered to vote, where he cast his ballot last Sunday – and where every seat was won by Yabloko candidates. This time round, United Russia’s triumph has left a bitter aftertaste.

Architects of success

If anyone has emerged as hero in these elections, it’s opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov. Despite his relative youth (Gudkov is 37 years old), he cannot by any means be called a political novice.

Gudkov served as a Just Russia deputy in the Duma of the previous convocation and became renowned, among other things, for his unswerving willingness to engage frankly with the media. He was one of three deputies not to vote for the annexation of Crimea in 2014 (Ilya Ponomarev, the only lawmaker who voted against it, has now left the country). Gudkov was expelled from the party; despite taking part in the elections as a single-mandate deputy, he didn’t make it into the new Duma either. He has made no secret of his intention to run for mayor of Moscow, and began preparing for the municipal elections virtually before anyone else.

When it comes to the mayoral elections, the municipal filter is all-important. To make it to the elections, prospective candidates need loyal deputies in local councils. And Gudkov has decided to train these candidates up. Working in collaboration with Maxim Katz (who served as the politician’s chief of staff during the parliamentary elections as well), he has inaugurated an online platform and a centre providing prospective candidates with ideological and strategic assistance in addition to financial support via crowdfunding. Gudkov and Katz launched a campaign that ended up motivating over a thousand candidates – mostly young people with no prior involvement in politics – to take part in the elections.

They negotiated a cooperation agreement with Yabloko – practically the first time anyone had managed to do so in the entire history of post-Soviet Russia. Assistance was also provided by the school for municipal deputies inaugurated by Open Russia, with some candidates receiving training from both the Gudkov and Khodorkovsky teams. Remarkably enough, this failed to precipitate any scandals – despite the fact that the Russian opposition can’t resist a good old internal spat.

Meanwhile, Ilya Yashin, a young politician with a national profile and an associate of the late Boris Nemtsov, has been working miracles of his own. He and a group of fellow-thinkers from the Solidarity movement decided to compete for seats in Moscow’s Krasnoselsky district… and prevailed: Solidarnost won seven seats to United Russia’s three.

Unexpected ally

Another key player in the opposition’s electoral successes must be mentioned here. That player is the Moscow mayor’s office.

It sounds paradoxical, but that’s the way it is. The mayor’s office bet on the loyalty and discipline of Moscow’s pensioners, who were canvassed by employees of the welfare system, as well as on public sector employees voting “the right way”.

Other Muscovites simply weren’t informed that an election was imminent. Posters featuring polling station addresses weren’t even displayed at information stands by apartment block entrances. Things came to such a pitch that Ella Pamfilova, head of the Central Election Commission, publicly scolded Moscow City Election Commission chair Valentina Gorbunova.

Meanwhile, an anonymous representative of the presidential administration insinuated to the Vedomosti newspaper that the strategy chosen by the mayor’s office was a fallacious one. Not only did posters materialise at information stands in the last two days before the vote, but people even received text message alerts from the Electoral Commission. After the elections were over, a hastily concocted poll proved (a fact that had been apparent to the the displeased anonymous source from the administration) that at least 80% of Muscovites knew about the elections.

But it was too late. Loyal voters were out celebrating Moscow City Day – organised on a particularly grand scale by the mayor’s office on account of the round anniversary – and simply had no time (or energy) to make it to the polls. The mayor’s office had achieved what it set out to achieve: a record low turnout of under 15%. But the people who did turn out were those whose votes had been solicited by youthful, charismatic, door-to-door canvassing opposition candidates.

City hall’s cause was helped neither by traditional violations such as ballot-stuffing and the alteration of vote tallies (incidentally, not all that many infringements were recorded this time round), nor even by certain innovations – thus, for example, several thousand servicemen were registered at a Ministry of Defence building in central Moscow shortly before the elections, their votes securing a victory for United Russia in that district.

The mayor’s office, it must be said, has shot itself in the foot like this on a previous occasion: a similar scenario unfolded in the mayoral elections of 2013, allowing Alexey Navalny to take second place in the contest and garner 27% of the vote – a record total for the non-systemic opposition.

Opposition squabbles benefit the Kremlin

The opposition, as noted above, loves a squabble, and this remains the case even now: their victory is as yet a highly relative one, and fresh scandals are already brewing. Dmitry Gudkov has gently chided Alexey Navalny for providing his campaign with insufficient support; and Maxim Katz, who’s been locked in a longstanding conflict with Navalny, directly accused Russia’s most famous oppositionist of working for the mayor’s office. Katz, who served as deputy chair of Navalny’s mayoral campaign, ended up being ousted from Navalny’s staff office, although the details of this affair surfaced much later, during the opposition’s abortive attempts to form a coalition for the 2016 parliamentary elections.

Navalny apologised for the fact that he hadn’t been overly active in his campaigning for opposition candidates and congratulated the winners. But commentators and bloggers working in cahoots with the presidential administration had already picked up on the story: the Runet was suddenly awash with identikit articles to the effect that Gudkov must be regarded as the real opposition leader – his deeds and actions serving as proof of his right to be so called – rather than the manipulator and provocateur Navalny, by whom the Moscow elections were simply ignored.

Yet just a month ago, lest we forget, Bolotnaya Case defendant Sergei Udaltsov’s release from prison was greeted by rather similar sentiments from those selfsame bloggers: Udalstov, they wrote, is the real opposition leader, his sufferings serving as proof of… And so on and so forth.

The Kremlin, of course, doesn’t need any “opposition leader”. What the Kremlin needs is discord in the opposition ranks. Another dispute is to do with the nomination of a single candidate for the mayoral elections. Gudkov intends to stand as the Yabloko candidate. So too, however, does Yabloko veteran Sergey Mitrokhin. He has already branded Gudkov a “weakling” and insinuated that his chances of success are slim to nil.

Mitrokhin, incidentally, took part in the 2013 elections and picked up 3.5% of the vote. And let’s not forget that a single opposition candidate, even if one suddenly emerges, still won’t overcome the municipal filter unless the mayor’s office deigns to gift them the votes of United Russia deputies, as happened in 2013 with Alexei Navalny.

Another risk is that the newly-minted municipal deputies – young people who were inspired by the campaign and who see their victory as an initial foray into big politics – will simply skedaddle when they realise what they’re really up against. In practice, local self-government in Moscow is pretty much non-existent: it was systematically dismantled by previous mayor Yuri Luzhkov and is now being completely killed off by Sergei Sobyanin.

Municipal deputies enjoy minimal power and can in no way influence mayoral decisions that have a real bearing on the life of the city. Of course, neither Gudkov nor Open Russia concealed this fact from their candidates, but knowing it is one thing and experiencing it first-hand quite another.

Will many of these deputies be sufficiently captivated by debates around whether or not to allow a local entrepreneur to open a household section in his grocery store? This is a big and difficult question.

All power to the councils

But there’s room for optimism, too. Alongside the young romantics, the ranks of the new deputies boast individuals with media fame and political experience: among these are the abovementioned Ilya Yashin, the journalist Ilya Azar, and Yulia Galyamina, an unswerving opponent of the mayor’s office (incidentally, a scandal has erupted in Timiryazevsky district, where Galyamina stood for election: vote tallies there were altered to ensure a majority for United Russia).

They’ve now acquired a new status and the opportunity for active collaboration. There have already been proposals to organise a rally with a view, as it were, to marking their electoral success, and – more significantly – in the hope of forming something like a permanent city council of oppositionist municipal deputies.

Such a council could serve as an effective platform for honest engagement with voters and journalists. And, naturally enough, it would complicate things for the mayor’s office, which has learned to contrive a semblance of dialogue with society, and to convince itself and the “folks up top” that any actions Sobyanin might undertake invariably send the capital’s denizens into raptures. An alternative hub for genuine dialogue could present Sobyanin with a real headache – especially in an election year.

Article also appeared at opendemocracy.net/od-russia/ivan-davydov/towards-a-different-city bearing the following notice:

Creative Commons License This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 licence. If you have any queries about republishing please contact us. Please check individual images for licensing details.