Without much real competition, Russians are set to elect governors and mayors, as well as regional and local representatives, on Sunday. But with protests planned across the country, experts say there could be surprises.
According to observers, the 2018 Russian election campaign was the weakest in a long time, with no real competition in most regions, and voter turnout expected to be low on Sunday.
"Colorful candidates and representatives of regional elites, people who could compete with those in power, were not allowed to run in the first place," said Grigory Melkonyants, co-founder of the Movement for Defense of Voters' Rights, or Golos.
According to Melkonyants, it's dangerous to run in elections without the support of the state. Such candidates would immediately be put under pressure by the authorities — which could include the initiation of criminal proceedings.
Foregone conclusion, for the most part
The governors of 22 regions, including the mayor of Moscow, will be directly elected on Sunday. In most regions, the result is already considered a foregone conclusion.
"But there are three regions with weak governors: the Khabarovsk region, Khakassia and the Vladimir region," Alexander Kynev, a political scientist at the Moscow School of Economics, told DW. "I am curious to see how constituents will vote under conditions where the challengers are weak and the people are becoming increasingly dissatisfied."
State candidates are running nearly unopposed in the regional parliamentary elections. Opposition candidates who were initially admitted have since been excluded from the vote after complaints from rivals. But there are exceptions.
In the parliamentary elections for Yekaterinburg, Buryatia and the Irkutsk and Ulyanovsk regions, opposition members managed to get on the ballot. "The election campaign in Irkutsk is the most interesting," said Kynev. There, a communist governor and the ruling party, United Russia, are divided over internal power struggles, he explains.
Getting out the vote, with gifts
There is also no real competition in Moscow's mayoral election, with observers describing the vote there as a test of the public's confidence in the current leadership. Out of 32 candidates, only five have been put on the ballot, including of course the incumbent, Sergei Sobyanin. Not a single opposition candidate is in the running, such as Dmitry Gudkov of the Party of Changes or Ilya Yashin of the Solidarnost movement.
Melkonyants pointed out an effort to curry favor with Moscow's rich residents: For the first time, voters will be allowed to cast ballots from their dachas, or summer cottages, in other regions, with 209 polling stations set up across the countryside. In order to make residents as comfortable as possible, polling stations there will remain open for two hours longer than in the city.
In addition, Moscow's city council recently announced an infrastructure program for dacha housing estates — another attempt to woo voters. According to Golos, local authorities will likely see voter turnout as a strong indicator of whether their settlement will end up benefiting from the program.
Citizens will also be lured to the ballot box with gifts. Voters under the age of 30, for example, have been promised free tickets to concerts by popular bands.
Protests against pension reform
Opposition leader and anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny has announced election day rallies in more than 80 cities, to protest a planned hike in the retirement age. However in most cities, including Moscow, those events haven't been given the go-ahead — only in St. Petersburg and Cheboksary on the Volga will the rallies be allowed.
The pension reform would raise the retirement age for women from 55 to 60, and from 60 to 65 for men. Ninety percent of Russians are against the reforms, according to recent surveys.
President Vladimir Putin has stressed that the changes are unavoidable due to demographic shifts. Critics, however, have pointed out that the average life expectancy for Russian men is 66 — meaning many workers, especially those living in poorer regions, won't even make it to the new retirement age.
'Unpleasant surprise' in store
Navalny himself will not be able to attend the rallies, as he is currently serving 30 days in prison for unauthorized protests in January. But a video calling for participation in the demonstrations, and not in the elections, is being actively distributed by Navalny's staff, including on YouTube.
Earlier this week, Russian authorities warned YouTube's parent company, Google, over its hosting of Navalny's videos, calling it electoral interference. "Such initiatives against Google are the result of hysteria within the Russian authorities. But when state power becomes nervous, people feel it," said Kynev, adding that people will then do exactly the opposite of what the state wants.
Kynev believes this could increase turnout among protest voters, meaning that come Monday morning, the election results in a number of regions could be an "unpleasant surprise" for those currently in power.