One week after Russia’s fraud-ridden local elections, Russian opposition parties have achieved an anomaly in that country’s politics by holding what appear to have been free and fair elections to the Coordination Council new decision-making body of the opposition movement.
At the time of writing, polling has been prolonged because of hackers, who have slowed down the tabulation of results. The election website (www.cvk2012.org) informed visitors that there could be problems casting their votes and to try again later. Though organisers and activists have yet to point the finger, the delay is likely to be the work of Kremlin proxies, who have launched this kind of attack against political enemies before.
The council will be comprised of 45 members selected from four separate candidate lists, with fifteen seats reserved for the three main political groupings behind the initiative: liberals, the left-wing and nationalists, and the remaining 30 seats to be selected from a list of non-aligned candidates. Participants range from veteran oppositionists such as Garry Kasparov to left-wing firebrand Sergey Udaltsov. Much of the voting has taken place online, although makeshift polling stations have also been set up.
These elections have been a relatively sophisticated operation. Voters were required to register and submit to a fairly labour-intensive identity verification process. According to the head of the Elections Commission, Leonid Volkov, 50,000 votes are needed for the election to be considered “representative”. To date, nearly 160,000 people have been registered and verified, and nearly 60,000 are believed to have participated thus far.
Last week’s local elections — marred by the usual acts of fraud and manipulation — may have delivered a “victory” to the ruling United Russia Party but the selection of a “shadow” opposition government via this online mechanism is a symbolic act of defiance against the humiliating spectre of fixed elections.
Indeed, while United Russia captured no less than 60 per cent of the vote in the local elections, an abstention rate of roughly 80 per cent speaks far more loudly, revealing an electorate with little to no confidence in the legitimacy of their electoral system. As a consequence, the timing of the online opposition elections is important, throwing the contrast between the ruling party’s pseudo-democracy and the opposition’s calls for political reform into stark relief.
The opposition elections also serve an important practical purpose: to set up a forum in which the opposition’s most popular leaders can clearly emerge; opposition tactics can be decided more transparently and democratically; and individual and party political agendas can emerge in a forum of open discussion and debate.
The Kremlin has promised to ignore the results of this contest. Yet the resources it seems its allies have deployed to interrupt the voting indicates that government will continue its attempts to discredit the opposition, fearing the development of a genuine popular anti-Putin movement.
In keeping with their characteristic chutzpah, pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi announced that it would send observers to the elections, with Nashi commissioner Konstantin Goloskokov informing The Moscow Times of his fears that the elections will be marred by voting carousels, a fraud method by which groups of voters cast ballots at multiple polling stations. Given that this tactic is a favourite of United Russia supporters, Goloskokov’s rhetoric is the stuff of Soviet-era black comedy.
Kremlin proxies are already grumbling that the elections are meaningless, because they are unrepresentative, engaging only a tiny fraction of the country’s population, most of whom are urban elites based in Moscow.
But this is to attack a straw man. The Coordination Council elections are not intended to represent all of Russia, but merely to provide the opposition with a more democratic space in which to decide upon tactics and hone their own message, with the goal of bringing about the reforms necessary to be able to participate in genuine, free and fair elections.
If they can achieve this, and the Coordination Council becomes a genuine forum for political change, the Kremlin could find itself outflanked by an increasingly innovative opposition movement. Of course, in Russian politics, that is a big if.