MOSCOW BLOG: Why are there no mass street protests after Russia's rigged Duma election?

MOSCOW BLOG: Why are there no mass street protests after Russia's rigged Duma election?
Following Belarus' rigged presidential elections hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets within hours. Russia has just held a similar election with demonstrable large-scale falsification, but there has been almost no reaction by the population. / wiki
By Ben Aris in Berlin September 21, 2021

On August 9 last year Belarus erupted into mass protests within hours of the polls closing on the massively falsified presidential elections that returned Alexander Lukashenko to office with a landslide 80% of the vote. Russia has also just held a similar election marred by blatant large-scale falsification. So where are the mass protests? Almost nothing has happened in the first 24 hours after the results were released.

The Belarusian election was immediately followed by four days of street battles in the worst violence the republic had seen since independence thirty years ago and hundreds of thousands marched every Sunday demanding Lukashenko's resignation. The public protests faded away over the freezing winter months, but the country remains in its worst political crisis ever.

The polls closed on Russia’s Duma elections on Sunday night, 19 September, and like in Belarus have been tainted by demonstrable vote rigging. In the most glaring, and for the Kremlin dangerous, example in the early exit polls based on the paper ballot vote, the ruling United Russia Party lost all its seats in Moscow largely to Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) candidates that gained a big bump from jailed anti-corruption activist and opposition politician Alexei Navalny’s smart voting tactics.

The KPRF made big gains in this year’s election, improving its standing from 13% in 2016 to just under 20% this time; however, according to the early exit polls, it almost certainly won even more votes: up to 25% of the vote, according to early polls. On the flip side United Russia officially won 49% of the vote, but again according to polls, actually won closer to 35-40% in the “real” voting. Nevertheless, officially United Russia retained its constitutional majority, winning 315 seats in the 450-seat legislature.

Why were there no protests on Monday night? Opposition leader Ilya Yashin released a damning graphic that shows the results in Moscow before and after the electronic voting results were included in the count. The green districts are victories for the smart voting candidate. The blue ones are victories for the administration's candidates. The graphic shows all the opposition victories in Moscow based on the paper ballot votes were overturned thanks to the “unusually” high support the United Russia candidates received from the electronic voters. Suspicions that the newly introduced e-voting system is being used by the Kremlin to heavily edit the results in its favour were only compounded by the fact that the release of the electronic results was delayed by four hours, apparently because a “vote counting robot” had technical issues.  

Moscow is a hotbed of liberal opposition sentiment. When the 2011 Duma election result – considered to be the dirtiest election to date – was fixed over 100,000 people took to the streets in the first mass demonstrations in Russia for a decade and rallied in Bolotnaya Park across the river Moskva from the Kremlin.

Fixing the vote is a very dangerous thing to do for the Kremlin. As bne IntelliNews reported in “Russia’s hybrid democracy” the Kremlin needs to collect as many legitimate supporters as it can to avoid mass protests, so the fix it can do to get United Russia over the simple majority mark is limited. And Moscow is the most dangerous place to mess with the results, as Muscovites are the most likely to protest of any region in Russia.

Protest no show

The Communists were robbed of a fifth of the seats they were probably entitled to in the new Duma. On Monday evening the party organised a rally on Pushkin Square to protest against the cheating, although as they had no permission the event was billed as a meeting with voters. A mere 200 people showed up, including journalists, reports Meduza.

The KPRF candidates that battled and lost seats in Moscow Communist Party, Valery Rashkin, Denis Parfenov and Sergey Obukhov, addressed the crowd. Rashkin promised that the Communists would continue protesting in the streets until election officials annul the results of electronic voting in the Russian capital, but nothing will come of the meeting.

According to the official election results, nominal opposition candidates didn’t win the vote in any of Moscow’s single-mandate constituencies. What’s more, at least three candidates were in the lead until the final vote count factored in online ballots. Rashkin, who heads the KPRF’s Moscow branch, was one of the candidates who lost after the online results were declared.

The lack of protests validates the results. The Kremlin has calculated correctly that it can fix the results, and a combination of apathy and repression has quelled what little revolutionary spirit is left in the Russian electorate.

A recent poll by independent pollster the Levada Center found that the willingness to protest has declined by half since the start of the year and awareness of the protest movement is falling: just under three quarters of respondents were aware of Navalny's mass protests on January 23 January 31 and the disappointing rally on April 22 that was marred by a low turnout, but only 10% of Russians were following the protests closely. As bne IntelliNews has argued elsewhere, the average Russian voter is more worried about losing the relatively comfortable life they have achieved after the decade-long boom years of the noughties than they are interested in changing the political system to make more gains.

At the same time, the unprecedented crackdown on the opposition and its related media as well as the use of OMON riot police and the multiple arrests of opposition figures as well as innocent users of social media have cowed the population and made it dangerous to put your head above the parapet.

What the lack of protests on Monday night shows is that the centre of gravity of the potential of protests has shifted in favour of the Kremlin and the average Russian is now less likely to take to the streets than ever. Previously the rule of thumb was that the Kremlin could not inject fake votes equivalent to more than 10% of the total count without risking protests, but that number has apparently grown bigger.

How big was the fix?

Just how big was the fix in these elections? In previous years we had a pretty good idea thanks to the statistical studies scientists carried out on the raw results, most prominently physicist Sergey Shpilkin.

The mathematical principle underlying this effort is voting numbers should be randomly distributed, but fixing disrupts that distribution in an easily identifiable way. Fairground owners use the same principle to see if their staff are stealing cash: if the employees nick mostly £1 coins then there are too few of these in the distribution of coins taken in and it is even possible to calculate fairly accurately just how many £1 coins have been stolen. Likewise with election officials that inject votes: they tend to round up to the nearest 0 or 5, creating spikes on the chart at the round numbers.

However, more changes mean this year we are unlikely to know how big the fix was. Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s aide de camp, released a chart that shows the rough distribution of votes weighted by the percentage of votes for United Russia that shows the higher percentage of the vote that went to United Russia (tending to 100% on the right) the more votes it won, which clearly testifies to vote rigging.  

This year statisticians have only limited access to the raw data, Shpilkin told Meduza in an interview. The Central Election Commission (CEC) has added a CAPTCHA to its website that means you can see the results, but not download them.

“The picture of fraud is almost the same as it was in 2016,” Shpilkin told Meduza, though he points out that “real modal turnout” was 3-5% higher in these elections than it was five years ago. In other words, even when downplaying the precincts with abnormally high voter participation, the most frequently recorded turnout in the 2021 parliamentary elections was higher than in 2016.

Researchers also found the same suspicious asymmetry present five years ago in the peaks of turnout and votes for United Russia, though the “right tail” in the graph for this weekend’s results shifted even more to the right, meaning that Russia’s party of power performed even better this year where turnout was highest.

Based on the collected data, Shpilkin estimates that election workers falsified the lion’s share of the ballots United Russia claimed in proportional representation voting this weekend. “It will be more than half,” he told Meduza.

The previous statistical analysis shows that United Russia has a very solid median support at 35% of the vote but that while it would still win any free election it would have to enter into a coalition with either the KPRF or all the small parties to rule. Volkov’s chart above suggests that that has not changed, although perhaps United Russia has improved its position to slightly under 40% in this election.

One of things that prevents the Kremlin allowing the free election scenario is Russian President Vladimir Putin remembers the Yeltsin-era Duma where the Communists had a large share but there was no dominant party of power and Yeltsin spent much of his time battling with a rambunctious parliament, where the KPRF was a major opponent.

That changed in the 1999 elections when Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov teamed up with former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov to create the Fatherland - Our Home Is Russia party to contest the elections at a time when Putin had just become prime minister.

The Luzhkov-Primakov team was on course to win the election and create a powerful new faction in the Duma, but the Putin-controlled Kremlin (Yeltsin was already fairly sick by then and Russia was controlled by the so-called “Family” clique) put the kibosh on the vote and kept Fatherland from victory. In the damage control exercise that followed, the Fatherland Party passed to Kremlin control and became the basis of today’s United Russia (which retained Fatherland’s bear icon as its image). Russia had come very close to a real multiparty political system with serious politicians heading several factions in what would have been close to a real parliamentary democracy.