Local election officials nullified the results of a gubernatorial run-off election in Primoriye Krai in Russia’s Far East for the first time since 1996, according to media reports. A suspicious uptick in last-minute votes prompted the nullification.
The incumbent, Andrey Tarasenko of United Russia, was trailing Andrey Ishchenko (KPRF) until almost all of the votes were counted. At that point, nearly 14,000 votes from four precincts, a total representing 100% of the votes, came in for Tarasenko. That was enough to push him over the edge.
When the graph of turnout and votes for the incumbent resembles a climate-change graph – flat most of the time with a sharp uptick at the very end – that is sign that something untoward probably happened. You don’t need some sophisticated technique to see the ‘we’re about to lose, do something about it’ pattern in the data.
So the question is, what comes next? Barring an unforeseen development, there will be an election do-over sometime in the next three months. Tarasenko will remain acting governor until a new United Russia candidate is found; Tarasenko has said he won’t run. That is not surprising since the obvious fraud that pushed him over the line ran counter to the presidential administration’s directive not to commit obvious fraud. Having angered both the Kremlin and local voters, Tarasenko’s candidacy would be dead on arrival.
A new election means that the ‘loser’ of Sunday’s run-off – Ishchenko – will be thrown back into a contest against a full pool of candidates. This means a new slate of candidates to defeat and the probability that United Russia will have another chance to put its thumb on the scale to defeat him.
New hope for democracy or temporary blip?
The other three run-off elections scheduled for this Sunday should feature less drama. In Khakassia, incumbent Viktor Zimin dropped out of the run-off after getting losing by 12 percentage points to communist Valentin Konovalov. In Khabarovsk and Vladimir, United Russia incumbents have tried to defuse their opponents’ campaigns by offering them jobs post-election.
LDPR boss Vladimir Zhirinovsky responded by saying neither of his party’s candidates would quit under any circumstances, but would, you know, probably take those jobs in case they lost. Sergey Furgal, LDPR candidate in Khabarovsk, already accepted the offer. It has also been reported that the Kremlin has also offered to name one of Zhirinovsky’s lieutenants, Mikhail Degtyarev, as Kursk oblast governor in exchange for surrendering the Khabarovsk election.
This gets at a deeper issue with Russian elections. Outright fraud carries a lot of risks to the regime because it increases the risk of protests. This is particularly key when the regime’s popularity has taken a sizable hit due to unhappiness over pension reform. Most Russian citizens don’t expect much from their elections, but they don’t like being played for obvious fools.
Tarasenko’s mistake, from the perspective of the presidential administration, was not that he cheated, but that he did it in such a crude manner. In this line of thinking, it is better to emulate authorities in Vladimir and Khabarovsk and cut deals with your opponents. This takes most of the uncertainty out of elections without resorting to transparent ballot-stuffing.
There is also Kemerovo’s example, where United Russia commands a well-developed political machine to get out the vote. Sergey Tsivilev was elected there with 81% of the vote despite only living in the region for 6 months. He took over after his predecessor, United Russia stalwart Armen Tuleev, resigned after 64 people (mostly children) burned to death in the Winter Cherry mall fire. In a democratic election, you would expect corruption leading to a deadly mall fire to depress support for the carpetbagging incumbent. In Kemerovo, and Russia more broadly, this just requires a little extra election management.
We should see the nullification of Primoriye’s elections not as some step towards democracy, but rather as punishment for poor election management. Expect to see a much more concentrated – and more sophisticated – United Russia effort to win the re-run election in Primoriye. The recent elections showed that Putin’s political machine isn’t impervious, but they also shouldn’t be cause for much optimism.