On Sept. 14, Russia held a spate of local elections. Thirty of 85 Russian regions held gubernatorial elections, residents of Crimea elected a new regional legislature, and Muscovites voted in municipal elections. These elections are interesting because they provide a bellwether for current protest sentiment levels and perhaps even an early preview of parliamentary elections that are due to take place in 2016. Furthermore, this is also the first time that Crimea has voted as part of Russia since being annexed in March. Gubernatorial elections were reinstated in 2012 as a major concession to a mass protest movement that for a time sent tremors through Russia’s political establishment in 2011-2012 and seemed to threaten the very stability of Vladimir Putin’s regime. The current round of elections confirms once again that the level of protest sentiment remains low across Russia and that the federal government is able to keep a firm lid on inter-elite conflict in the provinces, which back in the 1990s threatened the country’s territorial integrity. First, local elections failed to generate much public interest or discussion even in the country’s capital where many residents pay close attention to politics. Turnout was low—rarely exceeding 40 percent—and candidates nominated by the ruling United Russia party won in 28 of the 30 provinces that held gubernatorial elections (an independent won in Kirov oblast and a Communist in Orlov). Notably, incumbents won in all 30 provinces, and all of them won in the first round with levels of voter support ranging from 50.6 percent in Altai to Soviet-style 91.3 percent in Samara oblast. In other words, government candidates ran almost unopposed; all of them had been endorsed by president Putin personally shortly in the run up to the election.
The last time that gubernatorial elections took place in these same provinces in 2000-2004, most races had been hotly contested, and second-round run-off elections were held in 17 of the 30 regions. This time around, not only did regional elites coalesce around Moscow-endorsed candidates, but the federal government has also been careful to keep strong challengers (notably, Aleksandr Rutskoi in Kursk province and Oksana Dmitrieva in St. Petersburg) off the candidate list through the municipal filter mechanism. The 2012 law on gubernatorial elections states that candidates for governor must be endorsed by 5-10 percent of regional legislative assembly deputies; candidates who are not favored by the Kremlin find it difficult to secure even such minimal support in regional legislatures. All in all, United Russia’s overwhelming success in gubernatorial races indicates that the ruling party has found a way to maintain its dominance even while nominally embracing the ideal of deeper democratization through return to direct gubernatorial elections. This does not bode well for the opposition’s chances in the 2016 parliamentary election.