Elections Without Options

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

The State Duma -- or to be more precise, United Russia, which was either supported or egged on by the presidential administration -- is proposing to more or less do away with the option to vote "against all" in regional elections. Strictly speaking, they are not prohibiting it outright: Instead, they are letting regional authorities determine whether this line will appear on the ballot.

Naturally, the leadership in the majority of Russia's regions would be more than happy to take full advantage of this new opportunity. Now, they can cast aside the last way protesting voters can trump what are often referred to as "Bashkir electoral methods." These techniques have become very popular among local authorities who want their man to win.

Using these methods, officials simply refuse to register an undesirable candidate or party list, or they boot them out of the race. These techniques were not invented in Bashkortostan. However, they became a universal means of staying in power in the hands of the president of Bashkortostan, Murtaza Rakhimov. Elections without any real options have long been de rigeur in Bashkortostan.

In other regions, leaders have often tried to mimic Rakhimov, with mixed results. Russia's election legislation, which was developed back in the 1990s by democratic reformer and future Yabloko member Viktor Sheinis, saw the "against all" vote as an antidote to authorities' manipulations and their use of administrative resources.

The golden age of voters protesting against elections without real options came in 2000. On April 2, 2000, in the Moscow region town of Serpukhov, the "against all" option on the ballot won twice as many votes as the incumbent mayor and more than any other candidate. On the eve of elections, the city elections commission disqualified all the candidates who had any hopes of winning and left only the mayor and several hired guns who enjoyed zero popularity among voters. The disqualified candidates declared a hunger strike and released a joint statement asking voters to go to the polls and vote "against all." The voters did so, and triumphed. In six months, a new election was held, and the elections commission did not dare to try the same approach again. As a result, one of the candidates opposed to the mayor won.

A similar situation unfolded in November 2000 in the town of Sosnovy Bor in the Leningrad region. "Against all" won 43.87 percent of the vote, while the closest contender, a candidate from the local party of power, received 43.36 percent. There were several other instances in 2000-01 when "against all" came close to taking the election without actually winning. These included the mayoral elections in Novorossiisk in October 2000, when a third of voters cast their ballots "against all." In Omsk, 23.3 percent of voters did the same in March 2001. In both cities, elections commissions had refused to register candidates who stood a real chance of winning.

At the same time, 2000-01 also marked the beginning of managed democracy and the power vertical. Many candidates began to be routinely selected ahead of time for victory in regional elections, to the chagrin of voters. Take, for instance, the early gubernatorial election in Primorye in May 2001. In the first round of voting, Viktor Cherepkov took second place with 20.2 percent of the votes and qualified for a runoff with entrepreneur Sergei Darkin, who won slightly more votes, with 23.94 percent. Yet the presidential envoy to the Far Eastern Federal District, General Konstantin Pulkovsky, was backing his own candidate, his deputy Gennady Apanasenko, who came in third in the first round. And suddenly, on June 14, 2001, an independent court ruled that Cherepkov should be disqualified, and the second candidate for the runoff became none other than Apanasenko. Thus, in the second round, "against all" won 33.68 percent, while Darkin won with 40.18 percent.

Something similar happened in Primorye during the mayoral elections in Vladivostok last summer. In the first round in June 2004, Vladimir Nikolayev, who was supported by Governor Darkin and United Russia, got 26.79 percent, while Cherepkov came in a very close second with 26.37 percent. Importantly, Cherepkov was shadowed by a mystery candidate that had the same last name and also came in last at the polls, but not without taking 1.21 percent of the vote and undermining Viktor Cherepkov's results. Then, about a week later, another independent court ruled in favor of the city elections commission's request to remove Cherepkov from the ballot. Nikolayev won after getting 53 percent of the vote according to official statistics. His rival received 9 percent, and "against all" received 36 percent.

The difference between elections where the main political forces are represented and those where authorities have blocked certain candidates is obvious. For instance, "against all" won only 3.3 percent of the votes cast according to party lists in the 1999 Duma elections. In the 2000 presidential election, "against all" took just 1.88 percent, in the 2003 Duma elections 4.7 percent and in the 2004 presidential election 3.45 percent.

In regional parliamentary elections, if the local elections commission --which is usually under the thumb of the governor, no matter what the head of the Central Elections Commission, Alexander Veshnyakov, might say -- keeps a certain significant party off the ballot, then "against all" will become the main focal point for opposition. Earlier this year, Rodina's registration was denied in the Vladimir region. As a result, "against all" got 18 percent in the March election, coming in third after United Russia and the Communist Party with a turnout of only 30 percent. In the Magadan region, where authorities refused to allow the regional coalition Our Land Is Kolyma -- which united Yabloko, the Union of Right Forces and the Democratic Party -- to run in the May 2005 elections, "against all" won 15.85 percent of the vote, with 36.34 percent of voters turning up at the polls.

When less important political parties are barred from running, which happens very frequently, as these small fry could still potentially take votes away from United Russia, the results for "against all" are not as clear-cut but still noticeable. In the Bryansk region, officials refused to allow a coalition formed by the People's Will and the Democratic Party to participate in the December 2004 election. "Against all" won 11.65 percent. In the Voronezh region, where the small Agrarian Party was kept off the ballot this March, "against all" gained 11.88 percent with a turnout of 49.5 percent.

Clearly, if disgruntled voters no longer have the option to cast a vote against all the candidates on the ballot, they are unlikely to bother voting at all. Yet this prospect does not seem to faze the presidential administration one bit. The fewer angry voters who go to the polls, the higher the percentage of satisfied voters who will cast their ballots for the "right" candidates.

Vladimir Pribylovsky, president of the Panorama think tank, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.