What to Expect from Dead Elections
June 7, 2021
In journalism, there is the well-worn cliché of “dissecting elections.” This is when experts explain to the general public how the electoral system works, how election campaigns are run, and how votes are tallied. In a democracy, this knowledge is ordinarily not in high demand, because voters, as a rule, don’t care about such subtleties. People who go to the polling stations have preferences and emotions that they express by voting. The fine points matter a narrow stratum of politicized intellectuals. Rank-and-file voters regard elections respectfully, as one of the foundations of the democratic state, which they value, but they are not keen about its anatomical details.
Under authoritarianism, it would seem that elections merit no interest at all. After all, they don’t make it possible to change the government, let alone influence it in any tangible way. Their impact on the make-up of representative political bodies is insignificant, and on politics, negligible.
They are dead elections. And yet they are anything but inconspicuous.
On the contrary, the most high-profile events of recent months in Russia have been related to elections indirectly (like the crackdown on opposition organizations and activists) or directly (like United Russia’s so-called primaries). They have gone unremarked only by people who have completely isolated themselves from the daily grind of the Russian state and the propaganda servicing it. This is, of course, quite a healthy thing to do, but not everyone has the luxury of doing it.
Naturally, the hype will only increase over the summer, because presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov has already promised us a literally red-hot campaign. Indeed, elections — and just such dead elections — are vital to modern authoritarian regimes. Elections perform many useful functions for autocracies. I could list all of them, but it suffices to point out their main function: unless the regime triumphs at the ballot box, it is difficult to explain why the people in government occupy the high-ranking posts they do.
Their power is not warranted by the right of succession, nor by their outstanding personal qualities, nor by their crystal clear vision of the prospects for social development. Naturally, there are other contenders for power, ready to take it simply because they want to. So the common idea that elections will be canceled as unnecessary is mistaken. This means that there is some point in dissecting dead elections, just as there is a point in dissecting dead bodies.
The basic principle of election pathology is simple: dead elections should look like the real thing, but still keep those who already hold power in power, allowing only a minimal rotation of minor figures. In keeping with this principle, authoritarian elections involve four main areas of tampering: (1) voting systems; (2) voter behavior; (3) voter choice; (4) vote counting. Let’s examine each of these areas separately.
In Russia, messing with the electoral system in the narrow sense of the term is a thing of the past. Readers may remember that for a time we had a purely proportional electoral system, in which we could vote only for party lists, not for single candidates. Its introduction was no accident and no matter of good intentions: it was meant to facilitate the emergence of the United Russia party and eradicate independent MPs. However, the 2011 State Duma elections, in which United Russia nearly lost its parliamentary majority, showed that a mixed system was more convenient, so they went back to it.
There is nothing particularly innovative about this. If we do the numbers we see that that mixed systems are more popular among autocracies than among democratic countries. And we know from experience why: even if United Russia fails to gain a parliamentary majority via its party list, it will make it up for it by winning in the single-member districts. It was the single-member districts that gave United Russia a constitutional majority in the current State Duma. We know what the consequences for the Russian Constitution have been. But, admittedly, room for further tweaking of the pathological particulars has mostly been exhausted. Going any further would involve embracing electoral systems in which all semblance of democracy is forfeited.
But there is still room for creativity when it comes to manipulating voters. Take, for example, United Russia’s “primaries.” Many people ask why the powers that be must play this expensive game at all, if it is known in advance and has been repeatedly borne out by experience that, ultimately, only those candidates approved by the Kremlin end up on the party lists. I will answer this question with a question of my own. Is there a better way to test the ability of the regional authorities to get voters to an event that is not even an election, whose meaninglessness is obvious to everyone involved? Primaries are an ideal vehicle for turning out the segment of populace dependent on the authorities and thus doing a practice run before the parliamentary campaign kicks off in earnest.
Turning the dependent populace out to vote has been the primary tool of the authorities in recent years. I should stress that we are talking about a mobilization of voters that can be carried out regardless of a campaign’s particular circumstances and definitely produce the expected result. It’s a myth that people who vote under duress can give the authorities the finger behind their back. These people are forced to go to the polls in order to vote for United Russia and that’s exactly what they do.
Sometimes op-ed writers wonder why, since the authorities are so interested in voter turnout, they don’t introduce mandatory voting, which exists in many (mostly democratic) countries. The electoral forensic pathologist answers this question as follows: because the authorities are not interested in turning out all voters, only those who can be expected to vote “correctly.”
If you drive everyone to the polls, it will irritate the populace. Then, perhaps, the “giving them the finger” scenario could come to pass. No, the authorities have to facilitate the turnout only of the most reliable voters, and these are the voters who are forced to vote a certain way.
When such innovations of recent years as multi-day and electronic voting are discussed, attention is often paid to their role in falsifying the results. However, another thing is equally important. It is much easier to administratively enforce turnout and control the behavior of voters if the vote is held over several days. And we have heard a lot about the effectiveness of using screenshots in electronic voting following the results of United Russia’s “primaries.” Perhaps new tricks will also arrive in time for the September elections. The scope for creativity, I repeat, is still wide.
Manipulating voter choice, of course, mainly involves limiting the number of parties and candidates allowed to stand in elections. The conditions for this were created at the dawn of Russian electoral authoritarianism, in 2004–2006, and have been continuously perfected since then. At first, as you know, the authorities tightened the screws to such an extent that the remaining parties could literally be counted on the fingers of one hand. The 2011 campaign, in which the opposition pursued the “vote for any other party” strategy, showed that this was not the optimal path for the authorities.
There are a lot of registered parties this time round. Among them, there are no truly oppositional parties, completely independent of the authorities, nor can there be. However, careful work is being done to generation the illusion of choice, as exemplified by the comic rebranding of the Communist Party of Social Justice as the Russian Party of Freedom and Justice.
Of course, the “big three” parties (i.e., the LDPR, the CPRF, and a Just Russia) remain the favorites among the “legal opposition.” Even the half-forgotten Just Russia has been patched up for the elections: it has been renamed and strengthened with valuable new personnel. The calculation of the authorities is simple: United Russia’s administrative advantage + propaganda + the scattering of votes among “projects” and spoilers + the refusal of opposition-minded voters to go to the polls = a United Russia majority even on the party-list votes alone.
The problem has come from unexpected quarters: from the single-member districts. Again, the mixed electoral system does generally benefit the authorities. However, it generated an opportunity for so-called smart voting – that is, for strategically choosing to vote for candidates who have a chance of defeating United Russia candidates, rather than trying to elect candidates preferred by opposition voters.
Smart voting is bane to the authorities not only because it can achieve its immediate goal, but also because it encourages opposition voters to turn out for elections. And if they show up, they definitely won’t vote for United Russia on the party list ballots.
Crackdowns have been the main way of solving the problem this year. They enable the authorities to remove potentially strong and at the same time genuinely oppositional candidates from the elections. The efforts of the authorities on this front have been striking and attracted wide attention, but the principal target, in my opinion, is different. Smart voting is a complex strategy that requires organizational infrastructure and systematic guidance. The politicians who are currently targeted by crackdowns are vital not so much as potential candidates — the authorities could have prevented them from running using any number of tried and true methods — but as crucial figures in this infrastructure. The same applies to independent media, as well as (and especially) the few remaining opposition organizations in the political arena. Over the last year, they have been literally torn up by the roots.
Of course, the authorities cannot completely eliminate the threat posed by smart voting. It is a flexible strategy that relies on unconventional methods of political mobilization. Moreover, the impact made by the current scale of crackdowns on public sentiment and on the behavior of voters may go against expectations. In my opinion, hysteria about “foreign agents,” “undesirable organizations,” and other horrors is counterproductive in terms of the regime’s survival, since it erodes its claims to adhere to the democratic principles, driving it into the trap in which Alexander Lukashenko now finds himself. However, the authorities are trying their darndest to do just that, and if they break their own skulls in the process, you cannot blame them for their lack of diligence.
This zeal is fueled not so much by fears of losing, but rather by the well-founded notion that the desired outcome can be achieved only through fraud.
Let’s not harbor any illusions: the outcome will not be honest in any case.
Given the direct disciplinary responsibility of regional governors for getting the “correct” percentages at the ballot box (percentages that are known in advance), Russian elections generate irresistibly strong incentives for skewing the vote count. The federal authorities, in principle, have a stake in ensuring that the scale of the fraud is not off the charts and is not particularly conspicuous. But I don’t think that this is a matter of serious concern to them. Unlike in 2011, there is simply no one capable of recording violations due to the lack of independent monitoring.
The pathology of authoritarian elections is universal. Nothing special is happening in Russia compared to other regimes of this type, from Chad to Singapore. And yet, the current events, especially in terms of pre-election crackdowns, seem a bit too much. However, the cause of the overkill is clear. The parliamentary elections are quite important, but they would hardly be worth the effort if there were not a much more important event happening in 2024. The presidential election will complete the “reset” operation, extending Vladimir Putin’s term in office for at least six (and most likely twelve) years. The authorities must prepare for this in such a way as to completely rule out surprises.Grigorii Golosov is a political scientist, dean of the political science department at the European University in St. Petersburg, and author of the book Autocracy, or the Loneliness of Power. Photo courtesy of Proekt. Translated by the Russian Reader