For Russia’s Opposition, ‘The Least-Worst Option’ Was Key In the Duma Vote. Did It Work?

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(Article text ©2021 RFE/RL, Inc., Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – rferl.org – Mike Eckel – Sept. 21, 2021 – article text also appeared at https://www.rferl.org/a/russian-elections-smart-voting/31471587.html)

Earlier this year, Sergei Rimsky resigned as a police officer in the city of Ivanovo, a depressed former industrial textile town of 400,000 northeast of Moscow.

The reason? He was disgusted by the brutal police crackdown on protesters supporting anti-corruption crusader and Kremlin opponent Aleksei Navalny. He decided to channel his frustration and run for public office — as a candidate for the national parliament’s lower house, the State Duma.

Days before the September 17-19 vote, Rimsky’s campaign, on the ticket of the liberal Yabloko party, got a boost when he, along with scores of candidates nationwide, was endorsed by Navalny’s high-tech voter-guide strategy, dubbed Smart Voting. The strategy aimed to erode the chokehold that the ruling party, United Russia, has on domestic politics.

Тhe result for Rimsky? A distant fourth place, with the United Russia candidate winning handily.

Rimsky says he bears no grudge against Smart Voting but that it seems to work better in more plugged-in, tech-savvy, politically active regions like Moscow and St. Petersburg — and less so in more rural, remote, or less developed regions like his.

“Smart Voting primarily has an effect where there is good access to information resources, people who are active users of the Internet, and where there are serious sympathies for a protest [vote],” he told RFE/RL. “In the Ivanovo region, there’s none of that.”

Full preliminary results released by the Central Election Commission on September 20 showed that United Russia, the political party tied at the hip to the Kremlin and President Vladimir Putin, retained its supermajority in the Duma and was set to hold 324 of the chamber’s 450 seats.

Prior to the vote, there was some question about whether the party, shackled with the worst approval ratings of its two-decade existence, would have to settle for a simple majority rather than the two-thirds majority needed to approve constitutional amendments without help from other parties.

Wishful Thinking

That ended up being wishful thinking for a number of reasons, including widespread fraud, which, according to opposition activists, plagued the vote, which had no credible international monitors and an opaque electronic-voting system in several regions.

The suspense now appears to lie in the effectiveness and the fate of Navalny’s Smart Voting initiative, which many liberal Russian and opposition figures had bet would be a tool to thwart United Russia.

Navalny, who is sitting in a harsh prison about 200 kilometers southwest of Ivanovo on charges he contends are politically motivated, hailed the Smart Voting initiative and accused authorities of blunting its impact through fraud.

“Technically, we see the huge success of Smart Voting. In Moscow and St. Petersburg, so generally a triumph,” said a statement posted to his Instagram account, which is run by his associates.

“And now we have united, focused and, with the help of [Smart Voting], simply smashed the opponents in the match,” the statement said. “But they have the scoreboard. And they drew themselves a victory again.”

So what about Smart Voting? How much of a factor was it?

“I have no doubt that the ‘smart vote’ influenced electoral results in a visible numerical way this campaign, as it did in the course of [the] St. Petersburg local election and in Russian subnational elections in 2020,” Mikhail Turchenko, a political scientist at the European University of St. Petersburg, told RFE/RL.

But he cautioned that until more data was available, it was still too early to say for sure.

Navalny made a name for himself with an acerbic wit, a dogged anti-corruption campaign, and a prominent place in 2011-12 protests that were sparked by anger over Duma-vote fraud and dismay at Putin’s return to the presidency. He then tried his hand at electoral politics in 2013, running in the Moscow mayoral race.

He lost to the Kremlin’s anointed candidate, but he garnered enough of the vote to show that a genuine independent contender could attract genuine support.

In 2018, after he was barred from challenging Putin for the presidency, he and his allies conceived of Smart Voting — a way to focus the fractious political opposition and also combat the government’s moves to keep many potential opposition candidates off the ballots.

The idea aims to identify, and endorse, candidates who have the best chance at beating United Russia candidates — at the national and local levels.

More importantly, those candidates may be from what’s known as the “systemic opposition” — the Communist Party, the Liberal Democratic Party, and others that are nominally in the opposition but in reality rarely vote against United Russia or Kremlin initiatives.

For some liberal Russians who recoil at the idea of voting for the Communists, or the nationalist Liberal Democrats, or any party blessed by the Kremlin, it’s voting for the “least-worst option.”

High-Water Mark

The high-water mark for Smart Voting so far may have come in 2019, where the strategy was utilized in the election for the Moscow City Duma, the city legislature.

In that race, 20 candidates who were endorsed by Navalny’s team won, a victory that cut the number of United Russia members in the 45-seat legislature to 25, from 38.

According to one research paper, the strategy, on average, improved the results of opposition candidates by 5.6 percent.

In regional and local election campaigns in September 2020, the Smart Voting effect was most significant in regional capitals and other major cities, according to another research paper co-authored by Turchenko. United Russia lost its majority in legislatures in the Siberian cities of Novosibirsk, Tambov, and Tomsk in that vote.

Part of the success, the paper found, was attributable to mobilizing opposition voters who had not voted before, either out of apathy or out of confusion with ballot choices.

This was all before Smart Voting went fully high-tech this year, with a downloadable app and user-friendly interface that made it easy for anyone, anywhere across Russia’s 11 time zones to punch in their district and quickly pull up an alternative to United Russia candidates.

Half of the Duma’s 450 deputies are chosen in single-mandate districts in which the candidate with the most votes wins, even if it’s far from a majority. Тhe other half are chosen through nationwide voting for party lists.

The Smart Voting endorsements, published by Navalny’s associates on September 15, included its 1,234 recommendations for national and regional votes in all. For the Duma, it recommended 137 Communist Party nominees, 48 candidates from the A Just Russia party, 20 Liberal Democrats, and 10 from the liberal Yabloko party. A handful of candidates for other parties were also recommended.

An unofficial tally by RFE/RL, based on preliminary results, showed that 13 of those endorsed in the single-mandate districts won their elections. In at least two races, a candidate endorsed by Smart Voting lost his or her race — but so did the United Russia candidate.

“Navalny’s team will likely claim as successes for ‘Smart Voting’ those candidates they picked who were victorious, but that is to be expected,” said Ben Noble, an assistant professor of Russian politics at University College London. “As social scientists, however, we should be more cautious — and pay attention to the growing support for [the Communist Party] over recent months, which likely reflected dynamics independent of Navalny and his associates’ activities.”

Questions about Smart Voting’s effectiveness are muddled not only by the campaign that Russian authorities took to sideline Navalny and his organization, but also its efforts to prevent people from downloading the Smart Voting app — or even from reading the Smart Voting lists that circulated online.

Tech giants Google and Apple, and messaging app Telegram, bowed to Russian arguments that the Smart Voting app should be deleted due to the designation of Navalny’s and his organization as “extremist.”

In Rimsky’s district in Ivanovo, the electorate and the technical infrastructure made it a difficult place for Smart Voting to take hold.

Electronic Voting

In Moscow, where it was likely to be most effective, it was further thwarted by electronic voting, which election officials pushed widely as an easy, safe way for people to vote amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kremlin opponents said the online voting is a major avenue for fraud because it makes it harder for outside observers to access and analyze raw voting data to check for manipulation.

And when several Moscow races flipped abruptly in favor of United Russia when the e-voting results were announced following long delays, the ruling party’s foes cried foul.

“It is…impossible to recognize the results of the voting in Moscow and St. Petersburg. It was dirtier and worse than even 2011,” top Navalny aide Leonid Volkov said in a post to Twitter. “In St. Petersburg, the opposition’s victory was stolen by force. In Moscow — by electronic scam.”

The Communist Party pledged it wouldn’t recognize the Moscow results and called for a series of protests and an investigation.

Smart Voting “worked the way we described it in the article…. It gave a small but tangible uptick of votes that was completely visible in Moscow,” said Grigory Golosov, a political scientist who co-authored the analysis of the 2020 vote with Turchenko. “It may have occurred in other regions, too, but it’s too early to say.”

“Smart Voting can provide only a small boost to a candidate, but in the context of free and fair elections, this small boost can be decisive,” he told RFE/RL.

However, free and fair is what Kremlin critics contend these elections were absolutely not, particularly in Moscow.

Andrei Kolesnikov, a political analyst and senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said that Smart Voting provided an alternative, and that helped motivate apathetic voters.

But by endorsing so many Communists, he argued in an opinion article in the Financial Times, Navalny essentially set up a race between Communists and the “Chekists” — a nickname often used to describe current and former Russian spies, security officers, and intelligence agents like Putin and many of the people he has brought into top posts.

“This does nothing to alter the disempowered mood among the public, nor the political vector,” he wrote.