Voters are Not Fools: A Response to the 2011 Russian Parliamentary Elections

By now, we all know the score in terms of Russian elections. An election is called, the state employs its “administrative resources” to ensure huge advantages for the ruling party or candidate, a little bit of fraud is added in when necessary (or a lot if you happen to live in Chechnya), and, voila! The ruling regime returns to power with a crushing victory – although not too crushing, so as not to appear to be one of the “Stans” – and absolute control of the parliament and the presidential apparatus.

In fact, until yesterday, you could really argue that there were two things elections accomplished in terms of the composition of the government in competitive authoritarian regimes: either they returned the government to power, or they gave rise to some sort of Colored Revolution whereby the regime was thrown out of power following protests.

However something interesting happened over the weekend. The competitive authoritarian regime par excellence, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, went to the polls in a parliamentary election and lost votes from the previous election. And seats. Quite a lot of them actually. Yes, the ruling United Russia party will still have a majority in parliament, but it will be a much smaller majority than its previous majority. Despite claims of fraud and protest today, this will not likely turn into a Colored Revolution (although you never know with these sorts of things…). So we’ve got a situation where a ruling party in a competitive authoritarian regime performs quite badly in an election without losing power. What exactly does this mean??? Things like this are not supposed to happen. We are pleased to welcome with a first response to the election Vladimir Gelman of the European University of Saint Petersburg:

The famous American political scientist V.O.Key in his 1966 book, “The Responsible Electorate”, posted a well-known maxim: “Voters are not fools”. Since then, it has been oft-cited in descriptions and explanations of voting behavior in electoral democracies. December 4, 2011, proved this wisdom for the case of voting behavior under electoral authoritarian regimes. It is especially true in Russia, where voters experienced more than a decade of relatively open electoral competition and have not forgot it as yet despite numerous efforts put forth by the Kremlin. Even though the party of power, United Russia (also known by its nickname as “the party of swindlers and thieves”), was able to get a majority of seats in the State Duma (238 out of 450 seats), still its officially reported electoral results were below 50%, and in some big cities even well below 30-35%. Yet, it was far from what political scientists call as “stunning” elections when authoritarian regimes collapsed because of unexpected opening of ballot boxes (similarly to what happens in the Soviet 1989 elections to the Congress of People’s Deputies). However, even under conditions as uneven as the playing field of Russia’s electoral authoritarianism act of voting might become a weapon of the weak citizens against the strong state, if citizens employ efficient strategies of their political resistance.

Those voters, who opposed the party of power and its leaders, Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, might choose between three options: (a) boycott voting altogether; (b) destroy ballot papers in order to make their voting legally invalid; and© vote for any other party than United Russia. The latter strategy brought some success, while the former two had almost no impact. “Voting for anyone but United Russia!” was not only a safe and legitimate choice, but also looks as not so anti-system move, and even established a kind of ad hoc negative consensus among voters from different political camps – liberals, Communists, and nationalists, as well as those voters who had no clear political and/or ideological preferences but just opposed the continuity of the status quo. This logic was quite similar to the last years of the Soviet Union, when Russian democrats cooperated with nationalist movements in (then) Soviet republics in order to overthrow the Communist regime.

The results of December 4 polls is not a major failure for the Kremlin as yet, but at least seems a warning call before the presidential voting, scheduled for March 4. Just some months ago, nobody took seriously the very idea that Putin might lose these elections or at least that run-off will be needed. Now, this option looks not totally improbable. The problem is that the Kremlin will try to avoid the risk of electoral loss by every possible means, and God knows which means will be used by Putin for the sake of his political survival. Which lessons will be learned from December 4 polls by the Kremlin, is remain to be seen.

The full version of this post in Russian is available here

One Response to Voters are Not Fools: A Response to the 2011 Russian Parliamentary Elections

  1. Michael Miller December 5, 2011 at 11:45 pm #

    Since I do research on this, a couple comments. First, the results in Russia are not that unusual. For 1975-2004, in autocratic elections that allow multi-party competition, the average shift in the ruling party’s seat share is about 14% (1SD = 21%) and the average shift in vote shares is 13% (1SD = 20%), even taking out the cases that democratize.

    Second, the possibilities are not limited to reelection or protest. There are numerous cases in which competitive authoritarian regimes lose control of the legislature or executive through elections. Some of these cases democratize (Mexico and Taiwan) and some remain autocratic under new leadership (Zambia and Ukraine). Thus, if the Russian opposition can build on the current gains in future elections, they have a real chance at winning power through the ballot box.