“The more choice of different candidates there was, the better United Russia did. We’re not afraid of democracy; we need democracy”. With these words, prime minister Medvedev greeted the happy news that despite greater choice and wider opposition involvement compared to December’s parliamentary vote, UR ended its electoral slump on Sunday.
The opposition did not do well in the mayoral and regional elections. All five of the contested gubernatorial races went to the party of power. That was not necessarily surprising given the intensive ‘filtration’ undergone by candidates: in order to get onto the ballot, they essentially had to get approval from ‘above’.
However, what was shocking was that even in towns where was more of a genuine contest, the opposition didn’t fare much better. The most eagerly anticipated race – billed as the litmus test of national attitudes – was for the mayor of Khimky, a commuter town outside Moscow famous for last year’s forest protests. At around 20%, opposition candidate Evgenia Chirikova got only half as many votes as the pro-Kremlin incumbent, despite her support from famous dissident blogger Alexey Navalny. Even more depressingly, and particularly for such a highly hyped contest, voter turnout was a depressingly low 25%.
Of course, there was intimidation and voting violations, skewed press coverage and other dirty tricks. But nevertheless, how can the opposition hope to triumph at the national level when they can’t even muster enough votes on their “home turf” of Khimky, an educated and affluent town conducive to their message?
Part of the opposition’s problem is that most people believe that, for better of worse, the only way to get things done in Russia today is through the support of established power. As such, Khimky voters suspected that because of her adversarial relationships with the Kremlin, Chirikova would not be able to attract money and jobs to the town as well as her well-connected and Putin-friendly opponent. As the Moscow Times put it, several voters said they voted for Shakhov, instead of the opposition, because he had political ties. “Shakhov has leverage in powerful circles,” Alla Nikolayevna, a woman in her mid-40s, said while leaving a polling station.
A few days ago, the Economist wrote that “Ms Chirikova’s success—or lack thereof—on Sunday will be a measure of how far the opposition movement has come in penetrating the world of official politics. As Ms Chirikova herself says, she is taking part “not just in local elections, but elections on a federal level.”
Looking at the results, the opposition had better hope she was wrong.