The Medvedev Thaw and the December 2011 Russia Duma Elections

 by Gordon M. Hahn

[[This article was originally published in December 2011 as: Gordon M. Hahn,“The Thaw at the Polls – Tandem’s Liberalization Policy Rocks the Vote,” Russia – Other Points of View, 8 December 2011, http://www.russiaotherpointsofview.com/2011/12/the-thaw-at-the-polls-tandems-liberalization-policy-rocks-the-vote.html.]]

Sunday’s election to the State Duma, Russia’s lower house, was stunning.  As I expected, it registered a sharp decline in support for the pro-Kremlin United Russia (Yedinaya Rossiya or YeR) led by President Dmitrii Medvedev and Prime Minister and former president Vladimir Putin, showed a significantly freer and fairer voting and counting process, but a continuing uneven playing field during the pre-election campaign favoring the YeR.  Voters delivered a strong message of rebuke to the YeR for the ongoing corruption, limited economic opportunity, and bureaucratic arbitrariness.  Perhaps more important though, the results appear to show that the level of fraud was much more limited than in past elections and cut across party lines, benefiting all parties more or less equally and thus not affording the YeR any significant advantage.  Less fraud and equal opportunity fraud helped shape the sharp decline in YeR support.

As usual, the Washington Post and New York Times produced knee-jerk, ready-made responses to the vote that reflected neither of the vote’s two main outcomes.  A Post editorial characterized the vote as nothing but a “farce” and focused on several of the most arbitrary administrative measures (“The Farce of Russia’s Elections,” Washington Post, 5 December 2011).  The NYT simply reported the OSCE’s assessment that there was an uneven playing field and significant voting irregularities, but it left out the first sentence and almost all the positive OSCE remarks in the following excerpt from the OSCE’s initial report: “The observers also noted that the legal framework had been improved in some respects and televised debates for all parties provided one level platform for contestants.  On election day, voting was well organized overall, but the quality of the process deteriorated considerably during the count, which was characterized by frequent procedural violations and instances of apparent manipulations, including serious indications of ballot box stuffing.  Yesterday’s elections proved that the Russian people can form the future of this country by expressing their will despite many obstacles.  However, changes are needed for the will of the people to be respected” (David M. Herszenhorn and Ellen Barry, “Western Monitors Criticize Russian Elections,” New York Times, 5 December 2011 and “Despite lack of level playing field in Russian elections, voters took advantage of right to express choice, observers say,” OSCE Press Release, 5 December 2011, http://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/85753).  Neither the Times nor the OSCE addressed the issue of whether irregularities distorted the voting and/or counting so as to favor the YeR, no less offered proof that they did.  Similarly, neither Times nor the Post made to compare the elections results with other data to determine the extent or reality of the alleged ‘farce.’

Journalists might determine whether the voting process and counting favored the YeR in any significant way by comparing the election with exit polling or pre-election opinion polls as I do this in the Table below that is based on the official preliminary results of Sunday’s voting.  The final tally will not differ in any significant way from this preliminary count.  In late October, Russia’s Public Opinion Foundation (FOM) found 41 percent of respondents who had decided to vote ready to do so for YeR (“Lyudi kak lyudi,” Fond obshestvennogo mneniya (FOM), 7 October 2011, http://fom.ru/partii/10179).  Two weeks later, the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTSIOM) found 40 percent of decided voters ready to vote for YeR (“Elektoralnyi reiting politicheskikh partiy,” Vse-rossisskii Tsentr Issledovaniya Obshchestvennogo mneniya (VTsIOM), http://wciom.ru/index.php?id=170).  If one assumes that YeR took the same percentage of the undecided voters when they came to ‘pull the lever’ on Sunday, then YeR should have gotten approximately 52 percent of the vote (40% of 25% = 11%; 10% + 40-41% = 50-51%).  VTsIOM’s final pre-election poll gave YeR 53.7 percent of decided voters.  The Levada Center’s polling differed slightly, showing 56 percent ready to vote for YeR, but its poll excluded undecided from the respondent pool (“Vybory v Gosdumu,” Levada.ru, 25 November 2011, http://www.levada.ru/25-11-2011/vybory-v-gosdumu).  Exit polls carried out by VTsIOM with a 2 point margin of error showed that the official preliminary results did not exceed that margin (see Table).

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Comparing Final Pre-Election Opinion and Exit Polls with Election Results (figure in %)

Polling Agency                       YeR                 KPRF              LDPR              SR       Undecided

FOM (late Oct.)                      41                       12                 10               under 7          25

VTsIOM (Nov. 28)                54                       17                 12                   10              25

Levada (Nov. 18-21)               56                       21                 13                   10                0

VTsIOM Exit Polling             48.5                 19.8                 11.42               12.8          n/a

Election Results 2011            49.54               19.16               11.66               13.22        n/a

Election Results 2007              64.30               11.57                 8.14                 7.44        n/a

———————————————————————————————————————

YeR = pro-Kremlin United Russia party

KPRF = Communist Party of the Russian Federation

LDPR = populist/nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia

SR = social democratic Just Russia party

Sources: All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM), http://www.levada.ru/28-11-2011/sotsiologi-otdayut-edinoi-rossii-nemnogim-bolshe-50-golosov; VTsIOM exit poll – http://regnum.ru/news/1475239.html and http://news.rambler.ru/12027194/?utm_source=regnum&utm_medium=tiser&utm_campaign=main; Levada Center, http://www.levada.ru/25-11-2011/vybory-v-gosdumu; Public Opinion Foundation (FOM), http://fom.ru/partii/10179; and Russia’s Central Election Commission, http://www.cikrf.ru/news/cec/2011/12/05/predv.html and http://www.cikrf.ru/news/cec/2011/12/05/inf_centr_1.html.

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The Russian Central Election Commission’s preliminary voting results agree almost exactly with the pre-election and exit polling: YeR – 49 percent, KPRF – 19 percent, the social democratic SR – 13 percent, the populist nationalist LDPR – 12 percent, the liberal democratic Yabloko party – 3.3%, Patriots of Russia – 0.97%, and the Right Cause (Pravoe Delo or PD) party – 0.59%. (Russian Central Election Commission preliminary results, 10:00am, 5 December 2011, http://www.cikrf.ru/news/cec/2011/12/05/predv.html).

This suggests that election voting and counting were not significantly or even at all falsified to the benefit of the YeR.  New laws governing the use of absentee and early ballots seem to have had their effect, limiting ballot box stuffing that plagued previous elections and that the Kremlin winked and nodded at, as governors and local election officials did their best to pad the vote for their bosses in Moscow.  Previously, only in some of the less important regional and local votes were elections allowed to run according to the principle of ‘samotek’ or a free and fair ‘natural course.’

Thus, the dishonest element of the election comes largely from the pre-vote period: the continued use of ‘administrative resources’ to tilt the playing field before the vote.  That means greater access to state television and radio and gathering halls for YeR and using the courts and police to block certain pre-election actions by the opposition.  If there was more fraud in the vote committed on behalf of YeR, then the YeR’s poor showing means the Kremlin truly is in trouble, but this appears to be less likely or very limited in reality.

Also, the practice by regional bosses and clan leaders in the North Caucasus, military officers, and state educational and business enterprise directors of pressuring and herding their underlings to the polls to vote for the ruling party seems to have been reduced.  However, the decline in support for Putin, Medvedev, and the YeR about which I have written previously could have led to a breakdown in discipline or a transfer of such leaders’ allegiances to the communists and the SR.  This practice would not necessarily produce any significant divergence between pre-election and exit polls, on the one hand, and the actual voting results, on the other, since those pressured to vote in the ballot in a certain way would likely feel pressured to answer an opinion survey the same way.  But it cannot fully explain the tight correspondence between pre-election and exit polls and the official vote tally.  Also, the greater glasnost’ afforded the media and voiced by political leaders during the political thaw that ensued with Medvedev’s presidency surely played a role in whittling away support from the YeR, now dubbed the ‘party of criminals and thieves.’

In the end, the YeR lost nearly a quarter of its voters from the 2007 election, when it took 64 percent compared with this year’s 49 percent.  The communists and social democratic SR were the big winners in 2011 compared with 2007, taking the bulk of voters lost by YeR.  Another surprise was the liberal/social democratic Yabloko’s 3.3 percent, which by breaking the 3 percent barrier is now entitled to state financing.  Its 2011 take of 3.33 percent doubled its vote compared to 2007 (1.59%).  In some regions it received more than 10 percent of the vote, for example in Putin’s and medvedev’s hometown, St. Petersburg.

After estimating the distributed of seats not taken by the two parties that failed to break the 7 percent barrier, the Russian Election Commission preliminarily estimated  the distribution of seats in Russia’s next Duma as follows: YeR – 238 (52.4% and a loss of 77 seats from the previous Duma), KPRF – 92, SR – 64, LDPR – 56.  This gives YeR a slight majority and means, as expected, that it has lost its two-thirds constitutional majority and cannot make changes to the constitution unilaterally.

Meeting with YeR leaders after the vote to celebrate the party’s victory, Medvedev noted that he expected the new Duma to be “lively” and that the YeR’s Duma faction will have to form coalitions with other party factions in the Duma (“Spiker Gosdumy Boris Gryzlov pokinet svoi post,” Ekho Moskvy, 5 December 2011, 12:05, http://www.echo.msk.ru/news/836198-echo.html).  He emphasized: “I am pleased that we will have a livelier parliament. … We all realize that the truth is only born out of debate, and that no one has a monopoly over the truth” (“New Parliament Will be ‘Lively’ – Medvedev,” RIA Novosti, 5 December 2011, http://www.rian.ru).  In addition, YeR officials told Ekho Moskvy radio that the party would replace its Duma chairman Gryzlov, who became infamous for his claim that the Duma was no place for political discussion (“Spiker Gosdumy Boris Gryzlov pokinet svoi post”).

Almost all of the above is good news.  The bad news is the continuing, but waning (at least as evidenced by this election) democracy deficit and the rise in support for the communists and the LDPR.  Regarding the latter, the communists, while not social democrats, are not the Stalinists of old, and the LDPR has become a sclerotic party of rent-seekers rather than the ultra-nationalistic brand fostered by Vladimir Zhirinovskii in the 1990s.  Moreover, democratic forces like the SR and Yabloko also made gains at the expense of the YeR party of bureaucrats, despite (or because of) the Kremlin’s removal of SR chairman Sergei Mironov from his position as Chairman of the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house, and Yabloko’s recent years of decline.

So as Russians turn to celebrate the New Year, there is hope that at least semi-democratic pluralist politics is returning to Russia, the regime will become more responsive to the needs of its citizens, and this time in Russian history those predicting or hoping for revolutionary, even violent forms of regime transformation will be disappointed.  However, the presidential elections and the actions of their likely victor, Vladimir Putin, will be decisive in determining whether these trends continue, stagnate, or backslide.

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About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Analyst at Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation (Chicago), http://www.geostrategicforecasting.com; member of the Executive Advisory Board at the American Institute of Geostrategy (AIGEO) (Los Angeles), http://www.aigeo.org; and Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California.

Dr. Hahn is the author of the forthcoming book from McFarland Publishers Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the ‘New Cold War. Previously, he has authored three well-received books: The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.

Dr. Hahn has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia. He has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, and the Hoover Institution. Dr. Hahn also has been a Contributing Analyst for Russia Direct (russia-direct.com) and an Analyst and Consultant for Russia – Other Points of View (San Mateo, California) (www.russiaotherpointsofview.com).

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About Gordon M. Hahn