On 8 September, Russia will hold its first regional and municipal elections in a decade. The elections offer an important glimpse into the evolving Russian political landscape: some Russia commentators suggest that the 'single election day' is a 'reset' of the Russian political system. Elements of this reset include the endorsement of direct regional elections, and even active support by the authorities for opposition candidates to pass legislative requirements to participate.
Voting will take place to elect governors in eight regions, mayors of eight municipalities and other lower level legislative positions. Representatives of United Russia are likely to win most of these elections, such as Andrei Vorobyov in Moscow Region and Viktor Zimin in Khakassia.
At the same time, some United Russia representatives are distancing themselves from the party and being supported instead by the All Russia Popular Front, a wider political group established by Vladimir Putin in 2011 (and which he has led since June this year). Furthermore, United Russia's support is not guaranteed everywhere: in Transbaikal region and cities such as Yekaterinburg, opposition figures appear set to win.
Moscow's mayoral elections
The most important of these elections is that for Mayor of Moscow. The Mayor is one of the most powerful people in Russia. The campaign has had all the ingredients for political drama, marked by novel campaigning techniques, public debates between candidates, and, of course, scandals about financial and personal impropriety.
Alexey Navalniy, an anti-Putin opposition figure hailed in the West as the epitome of the new, young and tech-savvy urban middle class protest movement that emerged in December 2011, is one prominent candidate. On his (surprise) release pending appeal from a five-year prison sentence for embezzlement, Navalniy has taken the opportunity to launch an active campaign. He has held meetings in every Moscow district, given many interviews and employed what some Russian commentators call 'guerrilla tactics'.
His wider profile is growing but he has a small core support vote. Even his supporters acknowledge that his tactics are too individualistic, aggressive and divisive. As a result, he does not represent a united opposition.
The mayoral race has candidates from all the parliamentary parties, and some non-parliamentary ones, including Yabloko. Ivan Melnikov of the Communist Party (KPRF) is the main other opposition candidate. Melnikov, at 63, is a senior figure in the KPRF and first deputy chairman of the parliament. His campaign, led by Valeriy Rashkin, another experienced figure and trusted colleague of the party’s leader, Gennadiy Zyuganov, represents the party’s attempt to build on its gains in the 2011 regional and parliamentary elections. KPRF representatives claim that it won 30% of the vote in Moscow that year, and observers may remember the large number of hammer and sickle flags in the protest demonstrations.
Moscow's incumbent Mayor Sergey Sobyanin has much experience: he was regional governor in Tyumen and head of the presidential administration. Although he is running as an independent he is a member of United Russia and enjoys the support of president Putin. His team – led by Lyudmila Shvetsova, who has held senior positions in Moscow since the 1990s and was a candidate for mayor in 2010 – is emphasizing Sobyanin's acknowledged managerial competence and work ethic. These features, and Sobyanin's municipal projects including the introduction of a bicycle rental system and renovation of Gorky Park, have earned him praise and support.
Sobyanin called for early elections for two reasons. First, he has disrupted the plans of potential competitors such as Mikhail Prokhorov, who would have been planning for the scheduled mayoral election in 2015. Second, his larger reform plan would need popular mandate. Victory, particularly against Navalniy, will suggest that legitimacy.
The latest polls indicate a turnout in Moscow of just over 50%. They suggest that Sobyanin will win a first round victory with some 55-65% support, and that support for both Navalniy and Melnikov has grown during the campaign to some 15% and 12% respectively.
Politics making a comeback?
Some Russian commentators have observed that the elections are really referenda, with votes being cast for or against the front-runner, rather than an election between parties. And there are questions about the procedure, such as the little time given to campaigning. Russian political strategists are quoted in the media acknowledging that there will be some rigging – though they suggest that this is 'exuberance' rather than substantial cheating, and it will not change the outcome.
The elections are a small piece of the wider mosaic of Russian political life, and may be overshadowed by the G20 and ongoing crisis in Syria. Domestically, other prominent matters including problems caused by widespread flooding have demanded attention. Equally, on a political level, important developments are taking place: on 31 August, Putin sacked Vladimir Ishaev, Minister for the Development of the Far East, reflecting another government change and alteration to plans for regional development.
Nevertheless, the elections give political figures and parties the opportunity to try new campaigning tactics, and to maneuver and jostle for positions for the 2016 parliamentary elections, and then the 2018 presidential election.