Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. World
  2. Asia
14 September 2020

Russia’s local elections: Navalny’s anti-Kremlin campaigning pays off

Ruling party candidates have swept to victory in almost every regional contest – but the opposition also demonstrated its potential.

By Ido Vock

President Vladimir Putin’s ruling party, United Russia, retained control of councils and governorships in most of the 41 regions which went to the polls for local elections on Sunday, 13 September. However, the party has lost its majority in the local councils of Tomsk and Novosibirsk, where opposition leader Alexei Navalny had been touting his “smart voting” strategy in the weeks before he was poisoned

The vote was marred by accusations of widespread irregularities. The election monitor Golos said that it had received several reports that people had attempted to vote, only to find out that their ballot had already been issued and they had already voted. New multi-day voting and mobile election boxes allowed the authorities to boost turnout from loyal voters and evade scrutiny from monitors, said Ben Noble, a professor of Russian politics at University College London.

“It seems that the Kremlin has found a way to deal with United Russia’s low approval rating, currently around 30 per cent. That’s the most important thing regarding the 2021 Duma elections,” Noble said. “But these were not easily won successes – far from it.”

Golos also accused the government of using the pandemic “as an excuse to make the electoral system even more opaque and subject to manipulation, including direct falsifications”.

Local controversies became a lightning rod for opposition in many of the regions where United Russia incumbents faced relatively strong challengesIn Arkhangelsk, the sitting governor was returned once again, but only after facing a campaign which galvanised anger against an unpopular project for a huge landfill that was halted earlier this year.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

[See also: who is the “poisoned” Russian opposition leader?]

In Tomsk, opposition candidates won 19 of 27 seats on the city council, TV2 reported, an especially poignant result given that Navalny had been campaigning in the Siberian city when he was poisoned. Navalny had advocated anti-Kremlin tactical voting, a strategy which appears to have worked in a handful of locations – even with its main proponent out of action since August. Several officials targeted by his investigations and accused of corruption lost their seats. 

The results of these regional elections, viewed as a dress rehearsal for next year’s elections to the Duma, will have reassured the Kremlin that it is, for the moment, able to keep a lid on opposition challenges at the ballot box. But they also demonstrate the potential for local campaigning to galvanise voters against the Kremlin.