MOSCOW – Imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his embattled allies are not running in the Sept. 19 parliamentary election, but they still hope to challenge the ruling United Russia party with their strategy known as Smart Voting.
Hardly any Kremlin critics are allowed to run in the election to the parliament, or State Duma. Control of that body is seen as a key part of President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to cement his hold on power heading into the next presidential balloting, scheduled for 2024. Putin already has been running Russia since 2000.
The Smart Voting strategy could provide the only political intrigue in an election that has little overall drama, with very few opposition candidates allowed to run.
HOW DOES SMART VOTING WORK?
Smart Voting, an idea that Navalny came up with in 2018, is an online service designed to promote candidates that have the best chance to defeat those backed by the Kremlin and the United Russia party. It doesn't promote any particular opposition party.
Navalny’s top strategist Leonid Volkov told The Associated Press that Smart Voting has been monitoring and analyzing hundreds of campaigns and will be endorsing about 1,300 candidates — not just for the State Duma balloting but also for various regional elections that are being held on the same day.
In the State Duma election, all 450 seats are at stake, and United Russia currently holds 334 of them.
Half of the Duma, or 225 seats, are directly elected by voters. But voters also make a second choice on the ballot for the other half of the seats, which are drawn from party lists. There will be 14 political parties on the Sept. 19 ballot, and voters will pick one of them to send another representative to the Duma.
For that second choice, Volkov said Smart Voting will recommend selecting any party other than United Russia that is likely to pass the 5% threshold required to win a seat.
HOW SUCCESSFUL HAS IT BEEN?
Smart Voting has been used twice in regional elections in the past two years, and has proven quite effective. In 2019, it helped opposition candidates win 20 of 45 seats on the Moscow city council, and regional elections last year saw United Russia lose its majority in legislatures in the cities of Novosibirsk, Tambov and Tomsk.
Volkov admits that Smart Voting has “rather limited resources:”
“We’ve won local battles, but we can’t say we’re omnipotent. … There’s a long way to go. So far about 15%-20% of candidates endorsed by Smart Voting have won seats in legislatures,” he added.
WHAT'S THE KREMLIN'S RESPONSE?
In recent months, authorities have unleashed a sweeping crackdown against Navalny’s allies and supporters in a massive effort to suppress Smart Voting.
After recovering from poisoning with a nerve agent last year, Navalny was given a 2½-year prison sentence for violating parole for a conviction. He says both the poisoning and the conviction were politically motived — charges the Kremlin denies.
His top allies were slapped with criminal charges, and his Foundation for Fighting Corruption, as well as a network of regional offices, have been outlawed as extremist organizations. That has exposed hundreds of people associated with the groups to prosecution. Many of his top associates have left the country. About 50 websites that his team ran have been blocked, and dozens of regional offices have been closed.
The authorities have moved to block the Smart Voting website as well, but some internet users can still access it.
Authorities urged Apple and Google to delete the mobile app designed by Navalny’s team to promote Smart Voting, warning them that their failure to do so will be interpreted as interference in Russian elections.
They also demanded that Google and Yandex, the biggest Russian search engine, remove references to Smart Voting from the search results. So far, the demands have not been met.
Volkov said this multipronged attack disrupted operations, intimidated supporters and made it harder to promote Smart Voting. There were fewer online registrations on its website this year.
At the same time, however, the mobile app has had record downloads last month, and “this is cool,” Volkov said.
HOW HAS IT BEEN RECEIVED IN RUSSIAN POLITICS?
Smart Voting has been criticized by independent candidates and opposition groups for not supporting those who are genuinely against Kremlin policies. It has indeed backed candidates from nominal opposition parties that almost always toe the Kremlin’s line.
Navalny's team maintains that Smart Voting is not about voting for an ideal candidate, but rather is about defeating United Russia and Kremlin-backed politicians. Volkov said the goal is to disrupt and directly challenge a system that, in Putin's two decades in power, already has decided who will get a seat and who won’t.
“They have already assigned offices and positions, they have already laid out who will become a deputy. … We want to bring the people into the picture, when all of a sudden candidates on all levels realize that the voter is also present in this equation, and they should look up to the voter,” he said.
Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Moscow Center says Smart Voting is “a technical instrument aimed at shaking the structure the authorities would like to see as perfectly ideal.”
Attempts to disrupt the system are “painful” for authorities, and “that’s why they’re taking Smart Voting seriously, they’re taking Navalny seriously,” he said.
CAN IT UPEND THE KREMLIN’S DUMA ELECTION PLANS?
Putin expressed hope last month that United Russia will continue to dominate the parliament. Recent polls have shown, however, that only 27% of Russians are willing to vote for the party.
Nevertheless, political analysts believe it will be hard for the opposition to ensure a wide use of Smart Voting.
“The authorities will do everything to completely block information on the candidates (endorsed by Smart Voting), so I believe this system will not be widely used by the electorate,” says Tatyana Stanovaya, founder of R.Politik, a political think-tank.
Abbas Gallyamov, former Kremlin speechwriter turned political analyst, pointed out that Navalny, with his political authority and charisma, won't have the opportunity to advocate for Smart Voting as much as he used to.
“You’re not voting for a perfect candidate that personally suits you; you’re often voting for a person who is unpleasant stylistically and ideologically. … One needs a strong motive, one needs someone with authority to urge them to do that,” Gallyamov said. While Navalny has that authority, his allies do not, he added.
Still, Gallyamov believes at least 15% of the voters might use Smart Voting.
"The protest sentiment, the discontent are there; they haven’t gone anywhere,” he said.
Volkov doesn’t offer numbers when asked what would constitute success. The most important thing, he said, is that Smart Voting “changes the general perception of how the political system works” and undermines the Kremlin’s vertical of power, bringing back competitive politics and making voters matter.
“Even more politicians will start thinking about the voters in the next election or the next political event,” he said.