I wanted to make a quick initial observation about today’s Moscow mayoral election. The exit polls are showing the opposition leader Alexei Navalny doing better than expected at close to 30% of the vote, but losing handily to Putin ally and incumbent Sergei Sobyanin. The key figure here to watch, however, is Sobyanin’s share of the vote, which is currently being estimate in some exit polls as running around 52-53%. The reason the exact level is important is that the Moscow mayoral election uses a two-round majoritarian voting rule, meaning that if Sobyanin gets more than 50% of the vote, he avoids a second round run off in which he would have to go up against only Navalny. Although Navalny is losing handily in the first round, with Sobyanin’s support hovering just north of 50% it is by no means assured what would happen in a second round, especially as turnout can change across the different rounds of the election.
But equally importantly, these looks like the sorts of results that could trigger post-election protests if there is suspicion of electoral fraud (and Navalny is claiming his exit polls show Sobyanin’s support at 46%). The reason here is that although the actual results are not that close, Sobyanin being so close to 50% may lead voters to think that fraud tipped the outcome of the election in favor of the incumbent. As I have argued previously in an article in Perspectives on Politics, these types of elections can be especially conducive to protest because (a) they create an expectation that other people my also be protesting, thus lowering the potential cost to any individual of joining a protest while at the same time (b) they hold open the promise of a real benefit to protesting, i.e. potentially changing the outcome of the election.
There are two important caveats to consider. First, I have yet to see accusations of electoral fraud in this election – at the moment there are simply different claims as to what exit polls show the results should be. However, these are precisely the types of situations that can lead to accusations of electoral fraud later, and recent Russian elections have certainly not been immune to charges of electoral fraud. The second caveat is potentially more important, which is that the argument I made was in the context of national elections, where protest could really “throw the bums out”. We don’t yet know if similar dynamics are likely to be at work in election for a regional office. That being said, the mayor of Moscow, a city of 12 million people and the center of the Russian state, is about as important a local official as they come.
And to be clear, there are plenty of other reasons why people might not protest. There could be protest fatigue from the 2011-2012 Russian protests. There could be a fear of a harsh crack-down from security forces. There could be a sense that even if the first round results are overturned, the result will be just be the same in the next round. Or people could trust that the results are correct. (Or, still unknown at the time of this writing, the official results could even place Sobyanin below 50%, which I think would definitely not trigger protests.) But at this moment, past examples suggest that at the very least conditions are ripe for post-election protest should Moscovites sufficiently value the outcome of this peculiar “local” election.
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