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Inside Tomsk’s Political Machine

The Siberian city’s gubernatorial election, rigged and managed from above, illustrates how the electoral system really works in many Russian regions. From openDemocracy.

by Rinat Miftakhov 29 September 2017

Tomsk’s recent gubernatorial election had a little bit of everything: the incumbent governor as the frontrunner, spoiler candidates on the ballot, the ruling party’s haughty and occasionally rude attitude, a low-grade campaign with an attempt at some fake intrigue at the end, some modest self-enrichment by talentless spin doctors, a low turnout and a lot of indifference from the voters, a few irregularities at the polls … In a word, everything as it should be.

 

The Filter and the ‘Opposition

 

Tomsk’s first gubernatorial election campaign in 15 years was supposed to go off without a hitch. In February this year, when the incumbent governor Sergey Zhvachkin gave his notice, President Vladimir Putin endorsed him for the coming election. Everything seemed so predictable. The political field was cleared, what other option could there be? To take part in the gubernatorial election, anyone aspiring to become a “candidate” had to overcome the so-called “municipal filter” by collecting signatures from 156 municipal deputies or heads of local administrations. No party had half that number of deputies, as almost all local councilors are members of the ruling party. Thus, getting through the filter without prior approval from United Russia was impossible.

 

This approval (of the highest order, by Tomsk standards) was duly bestowed: mere minutes after officially announcing his candidacy at a United Russia press conference, the then and future governor declared that his party supported political competition and was happy to share its filter on request with anyone who asked.

 

The requests came from two spoiler candidates, Natalya Baryshnikova (of the Communist Party of Russia, KPRF) and Aleksandr Rostovstev (A Just Russia). These “opposition” parties could not even bring themselves to nominate their leaders for the governor’s post, enlisting instead two innocent local deputies for the slaughter: an educator and a doctor, for whom their elections, through party lists, to the regional parliament were in themselves the pinnacles of political triumph.

Everything seemed so predictable. The political field was cleared.

 

Going against the grain was the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) candidate Alexey Didenko, who deserves a few words all to himself, if only because of how symptomatic his case is. This local ace has long been a favorite of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the party’s sensational leader, and, having progressed through the city and local dumas, was mobilized to join the national parliament in 2011 through the top rung of the federal party list. Five years later, Didenko sought to be returned to his seat not through the list, but by winning a majority in a single-member district. To make this happen, Zhirinovsky allegedly arranged, in the quiet corridors of power in Moscow, for United Russia not to nominate a candidate in Didenko’s district.

 

Of course, that alleged fact alone should remind us of just how oppositional Zhirinovsky and his brave men are, but that’s not the point. The point is that a year ago Didenko succeeded in being elected to parliament from the district cleared for him, so that by the start of the gubernatorial campaign he was no less than a full-blown parliamentarian from Moscow. Of course, Didenko has no use whatsoever for the governor’s post, but he had to take part if only to maintain his status and feed his ambitions. For the same reason, he had no interest in requesting (especially in writing) the assistance of his nominal political opponents from United Russia in going through the “municipal filter.”

 

I suspect that, among other things, the young man let his feelings get the better of him: just as the campaign began, the local TV station (fully controlled by the governor) aired a series of blatantly sordid episodes praising Zhvachkin and denigrating Didenko. Thus, our ace decided to lean on his support in the capital by forcing the municipal filter issue through Zhirinovsky, instead of asking United Russia directly. The ruling party smelled a rat and called a press briefing for local media a few days before the registration deadline, inviting all three of Zhvachkin’s “opponents.”

 

Street scene in Tomsk. Photo by Adam Jones adamjones.freeservers.com/Wikimedia Commons.

 

At the briefing, the KPRF and A Just Russia candidates blushingly managed to say a few eloquent words to thank United Russia for their help in clearing the infamous filter. Didenko, undeterred, proclaimed that he had no intention of asking anyone for anything and would collect the required signatures on his own. No one knows exactly who in Tomsk got a call from Moscow, but at the appointed hour Didenko arrived at the electoral commission office with the right number of signatures, most of them from United Russia deputies.

 

This did not lay to rest the issue of the filter, which came to a tragicomic conclusion. The LDPR candidate had no qualms about publicly bragging how he had defeated the municipal filter all by himself. It seems as if the head honchos of United Russia in Tomsk, under some kind of obligation to Moscow, could not respond directly. So the media were treated to a leaked letter of protest, apparently composed by municipal United Russia deputies who had given their signatures to Didenko.

 

Local district deputies banded together and threatened to withdraw their signatures from the young Zhirinovsky ace (which, of course, would have been against the law).

 

A Clubby Campaign

 

The drama of the “municipal filter” is worth describing in detail not just because the realities of Tomsk politics may be unfamiliar to many, but also – and even primarily – because the events described above were perhaps the standout moment of the entire campaign, even as they made the sham nature of the whole exercise blindingly obvious.

The campaign itself was a stale affair. In an interview for TV2, a news and analysis website, the Tomsk political consultant Konstantin Baksheev had this to say about each of the candidates:

 

“To understand the style of the campaign, it is worth considering the image presented by each candidate. Didenko is all about dynamics. No matter what kind of dynamics, but the excitement around his name is somewhere at a level now known as ‘hype.’ Alexey’s advantage is his ability to define the media cycle. He often forces his opponents to keep coming back to topics they have nothing to gain from.”

 

Zhvachkin, in Baksheev’s eyes, was “the father of Siberian Athens.” His measured and dignified image was reflected in his electoral campaign.

 

“The governor has intentionally stepped away from a situation where he needs to prove anything to the electorate. His slogan about being from Siberia, in my view, smacks of populism, which is not quite fitting for the front runner. As for Ms. Baryshnikova, she shows us that ‘communists are people too.’ Basically, we are seeing her join the list of electoral figures in the Tomsk Oblast. I would not be surprised if the leader of Tomsk communists Fedorov had to leave his post soon, because Baryshnikova is a clear improvement in terms of tactical flexibility.”

 

As for the last candidate, Rostovtsev, Baksheev had just this brief remark: “He is a ‘doctor on vacation.’ That is, he looks like someone whose heart breaks for us and who would help us, if only he had not left his first aid kit at home again.”

 

The candidates’ publicity campaigns played out in the same vein. Zhvachkin toured the entire region on working visits, bearing gifts for villagers: money, asphalt for roads, doctors, and folk song festivals. The locals were genuinely excited and the governor’s press office routinely sent out between six and 12 releases along the lines of “the governor brought with him so-and-so, the governor opened this or that, the governor promised to …” It was an amusing sight, not least because over the years he had spent in the governor’s chair, Zhvachkin was almost never seen not only in the villages, but in Tomsk, too, where he apparently on average spends at most six months in a year.

 

An Animated TV Presence

 

The achievements of the current head of the region were a constant staple of local TV news, as well as of other advertising materials. The communists piped up occasionally, whereas A Just Russia more or less ignored the need to promote their candidate. The most visible and rather well-funded campaign was run by Alexey Didenko, who was clearly shooting for a respectable second-place finish.

 

Yet even in this case, the United Russian spin doctors did their boss a disservice when they distributed a rather underhanded series of direct mail leaflets aimed against Didenko. The LDPR candidate, offended yet again, was well served by the arrival of TV debates, which Zhvachkin decided to boycott – perhaps wisely, given his complete lack of ability to speak without a piece of paper in front of him, let alone respond to uncomfortable questions. In the end, the debates were taken over by the spoiler candidates. As the senior spoiler, Didenko opted against debating his other opponents, going after the absent governor instead. This he did concisely and vividly; during the second-to-last debate in prime time, he went so far as to challenge Zhvachkin to something of a duel: come join us tomorrow, he said, be a man, answer my questions.

 

In a word, the languishing campaign got a boost; to make things worse, there were new objective circumstances to consider. First, the Axe Festival (a popular local attraction with annual attendance in the tens of thousands) was canceled on the eve of its anniversary opening. The reason behind the cancelation was unsavory in every sense of the word: In the run-up to the festival, its participants and organizers contracted dysentery; 129 people were hospitalized. This was a major blow to the reputation of the regional government: according to the PRAVDASERM website, Zhvachkin fell 32 places in its online rating, from 38th position in July to 70th in August.

 

Then, a week before election day, the LDPR candidate went for the jugular and launched a massive social media campaign, recording a few insulting music videos about Zhvachkin and even issuing a Navalny-style incriminating report. Adding fuel to the fire, in August, the All Russia Opinion Survey Center (VTsIOM) published a survey suggesting Zhvachkin was polling at just 54 percent.

 

So the campaign – which had had no intrigue to offer from the beginning and with an easy victory seemingly destined for the preferred candidate, thanks to the municipal filter and the years-long campaign to bulldoze over the political field – took on a shade of real political competition on the eve of the election. The regional administration lost its confidence in a positive outcome. Even a runoff election would have looked like a defeat for the incumbent governor.

 

Role-Play Victory

 

Nonetheless, Zhvachkin won the campaign on 10 September. The official result put him at 61 percent of the votes with a 25 percent turnout. The spoiler candidates were a long way behind and did not, it seem, mind that much. For example, although the Tomsk communists’ leader Alexey Fedorov grumbled a little bit to keep up appearances, ultimately said he did not notice any irregularities:

 

“The election campaign was a quiet affair. There is no need to blame the weather. It is just that the citizens have lost their trust in elections and therefore do not vote. There is an authoritarian approach to the selection of gubernatorial and local authority candidates. Everyone understands that the ruling United Russia party has passed such a set of laws that people would never have an interest in elections. Because there is no competition and no contest. We have always said: why would you hold elections in September, there would be no turnout. It is a time when many have not yet returned from vacations or from the country, the start of the school year. If this had been in November, I think the turnout would be around 40 percent. What sense does it make it to campaign in the summer, when half of Tomsk and of the region, the most active citizens, go on vacation? There have been almost no irregularities at the election. In the past, as I recall, we would boycott entire polling stations because we knew that they would simply come up with the final results from scratch. This is no longer the case. Any irregularities are usually in the villages, where the local strongmen control everything and there is no oversight.”

 

The head of United Russia in Tomsk was magnanimous to his former sparring partners:

 

“Well, we have no bones to pick with our opponents. Yes, there are some among the voters who have a bone to pick with the government, but this is because there are many problems in our society that we are yet to solve.”

 

The idyll was spoiled somewhat by Zhirinovsky, who went on a habitual rant about falsifications in Tomsk, but calmed down quickly.

 

After the ‘Battle’

 

Zhvachkin did not win the election in the region’s capital. Despite the shrunken turnout of 19 percent, he could only get 49.97 percent [of the vote], according to official results. A total of 36,043 citizens of Tomsk voted for him, while four years earlier the mayor of Tomsk, Ivan Kliayn, (a constant source of jealousy for Zhvachkin) had secured 48,438 votes at his election, about a third more.

 

Many observers drew unflattering comparisons with Zhvachkin’s predecessor Viktor Kress, who governed the region for over 20 years and comfortably won every election he ran in. Firstly, those elections had, on average, twice the turnout: 49 percent in 1995, 63 percent in 1999, 42 percent in 2003. For reference, this time the turnout was 25 percent. The difference in results from past Tomsk elections was even more striking. In total votes, Kress secured 241,750 votes in 1995; 260,259 votes in 1999; and 215,258 votes in 2003. Zhvachkin could only get 120,441 votes.

 

Moreover, 120,000 is just the official result. According to a statistical analysis of the results in Tomsk by Sergey Shpilkin, a well-known expert in electoral manipulation, approximately 36,000 votes for Zhvachkin had simply been added to his tally. There was a corresponding “increase” in the turnout.

 

“The elections of regional heads took place in 16 subjects of the Russian Federation,” Shpilkin told the TV2 website. “These are several ethnic republics (Buryatia, Mordovia, Udmurtia, Mary El), a few oblasts from areas with a tradition of manipulations (Belgorod, Saratov, Ryazan), and a few oblasts that had not previously been observed to engage in falsification. In that context, the Tomsk Oblast earned a B- or a C+. It is clear that the results had been altered, but not to a catastrophic extent. For example, it is clear that the votes in the regional capital were left untouched. Unlike, for example, in Saratov, where the real distribution of votes had been skewed to death, so that they even had to fire the chair of the Saratov city electoral commission (who was innocent, in my opinion), when they should have fired the regional electoral commission head instead.”

 

As for the raw data, Shpilkin estimates that around 36,000 of the 120,000 votes officially cast for Governor Zhvachkin were doubtful. Consequently, the same number of voters recorded as having turned up for the election in the Tomsk Oblast should be doubted, too.

 

“This is the conclusion I make on the basis of a simple model that assumes that every falsification adds up to a single effort to stuff the ballot box,” Shpilkin says. “Under that assumption, 36,000 is an exact number. If there had been some more complicated forms of falsification, than it is more of an approximation, but it still correctly reflects the scale of falsifications.”

 

According to Shpilkin’s calculations, Zhvachkin’s actual result would have been just 52 percent rather than 61 percent. This would still have been enough to win in the first round. But that would have been a strained victory, so the government decided to take matters into its own hands. Curiously, Shpilkin’s model provides almost the same numbers as a VTsIOM poll conducted just before the election. This coincidence seems quite significant, given that [state-owned] VTsIOM can hardly be accused of underreporting the authorities’ standing.

 

Tomsk’s imitation election largely followed the pattern everyone expected and it ended as planned. Now the “elected” governor has to face up to reality. The problem is that this reality – our actual, day-to-day life (with all its grotesque deviations from the norm) – is no imitation.

 

You can fake journalism, law and order, and democracy up to a limit, but you can’t turn the people’s lives into an enormous simulation. So no one should be surprised if sooner or later the play comes to an end – and we would do well to hope the final scene is no more than just a silent tableau.

Rinat Miftakhov is a journalist for TV-2, Tomsk.


This article originally appeared on openDemocracy Russia.

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