How Russian officials ‘run’ elections with deceptive tactics

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MOSCOW – Russia runs local and national elections like clockwork in accordance with its post-Soviet constitution, but the results are almost always the same: crushing victories for President Vladimir V. Putin and the politicians and parties loyal to him .

In the parliamentary elections which start on Friday and end on Sunday, there is no doubt that his ruling party, United Russia, will win. For the Kremlin, which hopes to mobilize support for government policies and strengthen its legitimacy, the trick is to win hands down while maintaining the plausibility of a contested outcome.

Here are several ways the Kremlin tries to create the illusion of democratic choice while making sure it wins.

Among the candidates that voters will choose in a district of St. Petersburg, there are three men named Boris Vishnevsky, only one of whom is the real politician of the opposition.

Registering multiple candidates with the same or similar names as an opposition candidate is a proven Russian election tactic. Candidates with the same or similar names are entered in 24 of 225 single-district races in this week’s election – about 10 percent of all races, the Kommersant newspaper reported.

Russia has no monopoly on this scheme by any means: it was used in a 2020 Florida State Senate race – successfully, at least until the scam was discovered.

In the case of the Boris Vishnevsky multiples, the doubles also took on the appearance of the real opposition candidate, with the same salt and pepper beards, sparse hair and plain, buttoned shirts.

“This is political manipulation,” the real Mr Vishnevsky, a career politician and member of the Yabloko political party, said in a telephone interview. He said the others had legally changed their names this year and likely imitated his appearance with makeup or digitally altered photographs.

Credit…Anton Vaganov / Reuters

Unlike other authoritarian countries like Saudi Arabia and China, Russia has a multi-party political system that was entrenched when Mr. Putin came to power in 1999.

To face it, the Kremlin has relied on two strategies: bogus political parties and several quasi-independent parties that it calls “the systemic opposition”.

After the poisoning of opposition leader Alexeï A. Navalny during an assassination attempt a year ago, a party was created to appeal to the disgruntled young professionals who constitute its base of support. The party, called New People, mimics many of its anti-corruption messages but supports the continuation of Mr. Putin’s regime.

The parties that make up the systemic opposition are more established and enduring than the real counterfeits. This grouping, which emerged in the mid-2000s under what has been called “managed democracy,” includes the Communist Party and the Nationalist Liberal Democratic Party. They participate in the elections as opposition groups, but once elected they vote at the same rate as the United Russia party, thus creating an approved parliament.

Until last year, these parties coexisted with the “non-systemic” opposition led by Mr. Navalny, and called for the removal of Mr. Putin. But over the past year, ahead of the upcoming elections, the government has severely cracked down on legitimate opposition, sending most of its leaders, including Mr. Navalny, to prison or exile.

If more subtle methods are not enough, there is the blunt instrument of eliminating candidates from the ballot box.

This summer, authorities banned the vast majority of candidates – 163 out of 174 – from running for parliament as independents. They accused them of things like keeping foreign bank accounts or forging the signatures needed to appear on the ballot.

Laws allowing such abusive practices have spread over the years, starting with Mr. Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012 after a four-year hiatus as prime minister.

A law allowing the designation of non-governmental groups as “exercising the function of foreign agent” was passed in 2012, then expanded in 2017 to cover news media. Its application this summer has stifled independent media like Meduza, Proyekt and Dozhd television. A 2015 amendment to the law allowed groups to be designated “undesirable organizations”, with additional restrictions.

This year, Mr. Putin has broadened Russia’s strict anti-extremism legislation, first enacted as anti-terrorism measures, to apply to opposition politicians in Mr. Navalny’s organization.

Following a once-prevalent practice in the United States of buying voter loyalty by offering “street money,” the Russian government typically offers one-time payments to soldiers, public sector workers, and retirees a few weeks before elections. .

This year, members of the security services received 15,000 rubles, about 205 dollars, and pensioners and parents of school-aged children 10,000 rubles. The series of presidential decrees behind them, signed in July and August, specified payments in September, on the eve of the vote.

The payments were glorified in the advertising of the pro-government campaign. An announcement, recounted by a soldier’s girlfriend, said: “After our president signed a decree on one-off payments to soldiers, cadets and police, I have confidence in my future. “

Russia allows online voting, and many companies have made it possible for employees to vote on computers set up by human resources departments.

Critics say it intimidates voters by potentially making their choices known to their bosses.

This summer, authorities banned some 40 websites affiliated with Mr. Navalny’s movement that promoted his guide to voting for the elections. The strategy, which he calls smart voting, is basically getting opposition voters to rally around the strongest anti-Kremin candidate in each race.

Those plans were derailed on Friday as the remaining app that Navalny’s forces planned to use was removed from Google and Apple app stores after the Kremlin threatened to arrest its employees in Russia.

Previously, the Russian authorities had attempted more subtle approaches. Recently, for example, a company in southern Russia that sells wool registered “smart voting” as a trademark.

He then sued Google and Yandex, a Russian search engine, accusing them of violating its trademark rights and demanding that they block sites displaying Mr. Navalny’s voting guides. A Russian court quickly ruled in favor of the company.

A high-stakes cat-and-mouse game has arisen as “non-systemic” opposition sought to reverse government tactics.

Opposition candidates imprisoned or banned by court rulings from attending public events instead appeared as life-size cardboard cutouts. A jailed candidate, Andrei Pivovarov, presented himself entirely as a cardboard cutout in his campaign office in the southern city of Krasnodar.

Mr Navalny’s group had said they expected his “smart vote” strategy to win a seat in parliament for at least one opposition politician, and possibly up to 20.

Now, with the removal of the app from the Google and Apple stores, that goal appears to be unattainable, keeping the Kremlin’s dubious election record alive: since 2016, no “non-systemic” opposition member has served. in the 450 -seat body.

Alina Lobzina contributed reporting.



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