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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Incumbency Trap

The first of Russia's 50 gubernatorial elections is scheduled to take place in Saratov oblast Sept. 1. The Saratov campaign merits attention because it sets the tone for subsequent elections and sheds light on the often murky processes of regional government. But more interestingly, it poses a crucial test for reformers.

Analysts of Russian voting patterns claim that the share of rural population in a region is the strongest determinant of how it will vote. Saratov is in the heart of the red belt. It has a high proportion of rural voters and has consistently voted for leftist parties and candidates. If the reformist incumbent wins despite the region's history of voting for leftist candidates, his victory would provide strong evidence that demographics are not destiny in Russia.

Three candidates are competing for the Saratov governorship. The first, Dmitry Ayatskov, the incumbent and a former member of the Federation Council, was appointed by Yeltsin in April 1996 after the last governor was removed because of the region's strong support for communists in the parliamentary elections. He is challenged by Anatoly Gordeyev, a Communist Party candidate who is Gennady Zyuganov's economic adviser and a former State Duma deputy elected on a single mandate seat. The third is a ghost candidate, allegedly asked to run by Ayatskov to ensure that the elections are sustained should Gordeyev withdraw his candidacy.

The advantages that the incumbent enjoys have many parallels to the federal campaign and shed light on the rudimentary stage of democracy at the regional level in Russia.

Appointed in April to replace an unpopular governor, Ayatskov has conducted a nonstop campaign, traveling around the oblast giving away tax concessions and energy discounts, much as Yeltsin had on a grander scale. And just as the president issued spending decrees without legislative approval, so has the governor, unchecked, spent oblast revenues in his electoral campaign.

Moreover, the incumbent is not hindered by a division of powers among regional governing branches. Twenty-one of the 35 deputies in the Saratov legislative assembly occupy executive posts in either oblast or local administrations. These deputies are loyal to Ayatskov because he can remove them from office. Their number gives them the majority needed to push through any legislation Ayatskov favors. With the legislature under his control, Ayatskov can come across as a highly effective policymaker who faces little opposition.

Ayatskov has also used his powers of appointment to make a clean sweep of nearly all mayors and local heads of administration, and replaced them with people loyal to him. He ensured their loyalty by putting off mayoral elections until after the gubernatorial one, just as Yeltsin had postponed gubernatorial elections until after the presidential election. Mayors (like governors during the presidential election) know they will be replaced if the communist candidate wins. These local officials have a great deal of formal and informal influence over their voters. They control access to public spaces, and some have allegedly refused to allow the communist candidate to campaign in their districts. Officials can also pressure factory managers to sway their workers' votes by threatening to shut off electricity, close down roads, impose taxes, or they can simply remove the director.

The incumbent also has the advantage of being able to set a date for elections favorable to himself. Ayatskov picked Sept. 1, making Saratov the first gubernatorial election, in order to capitalize on the momentum that had led to Yeltsin's victory.

Moreover, Ayatskov has the clear advantage in both funding and visibility. Even more than in the presidential election, the lion's share of media attention is devoted to him, and most of it is unequivocally flattering. Gordeyev, in contrast, is almost completely absent in the press, aside from the space and time in newspapers and television officially allotted to him as a candidate.

Another similarity to the presidential election is the scare tactics employed by the incumbent. Just as Yeltsin's main campaign theme was that Russia would return to Stalinist times if Zyuganov won, so Ayatskov's is that the oblast will be fiscally cut off by the federal administration if Gordeyev wins. With one-third of the oblast budget consisting of federal transfers, the warning carries weight among voters.

Ayatskov also enjoys the support of the federal government. Since an official Yeltsin endorsement would hurt more than help in this red belt region, a bilateral power-sharing treaty with the federal government is instead scheduled to be signed immediately before the election. This treaty conveys the impression that Ayatskov has good connections in the federal branches of power, that he has won a greater share of autonomy for the oblast, and that he is looking out for its interests. Moreover, Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov recently paid a visit to the oblast and signed an economic cooperation agreement with Ayatskov. The message is that all such ties will be lost if Ayatskov is not elected.

If despite all of these advantages Ayatskov is defeated, then there is little hope that reformers will triumph in other conservative regions. Conversely, an Ayatskov victory can provide a lesson for the subsequent gubernatorial elections -- that even in the most conservative regions, reformers can manipulate the powerful levers of incumbency to win.

But insights from the campaign in Saratov should also alert us to the dangerous concentration of power in the hands of one person at the regional level. Governors' hegemony has created serious obstacles to democracy at the regional level such as a lack of separation of power, violation of electoral rules by local officials, and lack of press freedom. A decisive victory by reformers in the upcoming elections should therefore not be considered a consummate win for democracy.

Svetlana Tsalik is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Stanford University. She contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.