A Lazy City

September 10, 2013

Voter turnout in Moscow’s elections was less than 34%, while the sociologists forecasted 45-52%. What’s wrong with Muscovites? That’s what The New Times tried to figure out

Six hours after the opening of polling stations the turnout was disastrously low, below 17%, then it went up, but in the end turned out to be still much lower than expected. If this had happened a year or two ago, no one would be particularly surprised: at the 2005 Moscow City Duma elections only 34.8% of Muscovites showed up, and 35.3% in 2009. But this time around voters had a choice, there were alternatives: an unprecedented campaign by Alexei Navalny promised a some different political activity. But it did not happen. Why?

Theory 1. Authorities’ mistake

According to Alexander Morozov, a political scientist who once worked for the “Just Russia” campaign headquarters, the low turnout is due to several factors. “Moving the election day to the beginning of September (until 2012 the single day of voting was the second Sunday in October . – The New Times) was a mistake, because some people are on holidays and out of town, he explains. The low turnout speaks to the fact that a large part of the population has decided not to participate in the battle between Navalny and Sobyanin at all, they just do not trust in elections.” The “Levada-Center” director Lev Gudkov agrees. Morozov also notes that the candidates of the LDPR and the CPRF “had weak campaigns not intended to mobilize,” and it is “not a oversight, but certainly a conscious decision of the parties.” Plus, the Kremlin decided not to highlight the campaign on federal television channels too much, says Morozov, and it is the main information resource . Gudkov believes that the low turnout has played primarily to the hand of Navalny: sociologists wouldn’t give him more than 22%, and in the end he was able to mobilize the electorate, while Sobyanin’s voters had either left town or just stayed home. “Sobyanin will inevitably lose part of his legitimacy, regardless of the percentages,” says Morozov. “The authorities ended up in captivity of their own illusion of success: they were so confident of Sobyanin’s victory, they wouldn’t mind a low turnout,” adds Gudkov

Theory 2. Campaign headquarters’ mistakes

Igor Mintusov, a political analyst and the head of “Niccolo M,” blames the candidates’ teams, especially in the final stage, when it was necessary to appeal to people to come to the polls. “In the U.S. the last stage of an election campaign is called GOTL (“Get out the load,” literally ,”to be the votes unloaded”). They use everything – phone calls, flyers, cards – all in the final days before the vote. Here none of the candidates’ headquarters tried to motivate Muscovites to come to the polls.” Gleb Pavlovsky , formerly one of the masterminds of Putin’s victorious campaign in 1999-2000, and the head of the Effective Policy Foundation, also believes that Navalny’s headquarters failed at the finish line. For example, the concert on Sakharov Avenue on September 6 sounded like a final chord: “They considered it done, they lowered the boom on the authorities. Buy they forgot to complete what they started at the ballot box,” says Pavlovsky. However, Mintusov recognizes that Navalny succeeded at mobilizing young people – most of the votes he got were from young voters. But for Sobyanin such a low turnout was a very unpleasant surprise: “He had to mobilize his electorate more effectively.” “Sobyanin refused to debate , his headquarters wasn’t particularly mobilized. Apparently they wanted fair elections and full legitimacy and decided to use administrative resources to a limited extent,” says Gudkov .

Theory 3. Optical illusion

Perhaps the most unexpected explanation of a low turnout was offered by Alexander Lebedev, a businessman, who in 2003 participated in the election of the mayor of Moscow, and came second with 12.8% of votes (Yuri Luzhkov got 74.8%). In his view, the current 33% is actually a very good turnout, because at the previous municipal elections a similar turnout was achieved solely through massive fraud.

“This time the authorities banned manipulations, and there were a very large number of observers. Therefore, what Luzhkov’s team could do for the last ten years this time did not work, says Lebedev. It seems that those 30-40 percent of the votes, they (Luzhkov’s people) would get by everything that was prohibited at this election. Those who did not show up this time never did before, but their votes were somehow “counted” anyway [in the past].

By the way, many experts spoke of imputed turnout in the elections for the Moscow City Duma back in 2009. In particular, a physicist and programmer Sergey Shpilkin performed a statistical analysis of the results and came to the conclusion that the actual turnout then was only 22% instead of the official 35%.