Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Against the Stream: Political Opposition in the Russian Regions during the 2012-2016 Electoral Cycle

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Against the Stream: Political Opposition in the Russian Regions during the 2012-2016 Electoral Cycle

Article excerpt

The "For Fair Elections!" movement that rolled across Russia in winter 2011-2012 saw thousands of citizens mobilize under its banner and opposition groups of all stripes join its ranks. The regime's initial response was to open up the political system: the reforms proposed by then-President Dimitri Medvedev in December 2011 significantly relaxed the regulation of parties and reintroduced gubernatorial elections, making opposition activists hopeful about the possibility of defeating the dominant United Russia party in the regions. Street politics therefore seemed to have created a space for potential challengers to enter the electoral arena. (2) In practice, however, these perceived "cracks in the wall," (3) which were seen as signaling the possible "decline of electoral authoritarianism," (4) did not live up to the opposition's expectations either within the State Duma or outside it. United Russia increased its share of the vote in State Duma elections from 49.3 percent in 2011 to 54.2 percent in 2016. It also dramatically increased its presence in federal parliaments by winning 203 of 225 single-member districts in the last elections. The party also ensured its dominant position at the subnational level: its members occupied almost all executive offices and took a majority of seats in regional legislatures. In regional elections, the mean percentage of votes for United Russia increased from 52.7 percent in the period between 2007 and 2011 to 54 percent in 2012-2016. The margin of victory also increased by 4 percentage points (from 34% to 38%).

Why did the opposition parties (5) fail to seize these opportunities? Existing studies suggest that a combination of cooptation and repression of the vague coalition of non-systemic opposition groups and their temporary parliamentary allies, alongside increased regulation of media and civil society, ensured the regime's survival. (6) In this article, I explore the regional authorities' learning process and the emergence of the "containment strategy" that impeded the development of subnational opposition after the 2011-2012 protests. I argue that at the core of the containment strategy lies a dilemma of controlled electoral competition: the federal authorities had to craft a policy that simultaneously allowed the opposition to exist and prevented it from gaining meaningful strength.

Russian subnational elections represent a natural testing ground for different facets of containment. To this point, research has focused primarily on the electoral performance of the dominant party in the regions. (7) The electoral performance of opposition parties and the constraints on their operation receive less attention; these issues are usually studied in the context of variation in subnational regimes, where scholars are divided between structuralist (8) and agency-related (9) explanations.

However, the electoral strategies of non-dominant parties and their patterns of interaction with the regime are presumably of interest to scholars of electoral authoritarianism and authoritarian stability and change. First, these parties gather the votes of citizens disappointed with an incumbent, meaning that they provide valuable information about the mass base for dissent. Second, opposition parties provide a home for defectors from the ruling party, who might later lead the charge against the regime. (10) Finally, when the opportunity structure opens, the loyal opposition may join protests in order to negotiate a better position within the system. As the "For Fair Elections" movement died out, the streets were largely closed to politics, but new actors entered the electoral arena. Authoritarian leaders seem to realize the importance of limited opposition: they invest resources in co-opting, fragmenting, harassing, or marginalizing opposition leaders and organizations. In other words, autocrats learn how to contain the opposition within certain limits in order to ensure their own survival. …

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