Could Navalny’s ‘Smart Voting’ Strategy Shake Up Russia’s Election?

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Five of the opposition leader’s exiled aides are running an election campaign they hope will bring dozens of Kremlin opponents to parliament.

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MOSCOW — At an undisclosed location outside Russia, five people have been meeting regularly for months to plot an impossible blow to President Vladimir V. Putin in this weekend’s Russian election.


The five imprisoned opposition leader Alexei A. Navalny’s associates, all of whom were deported because of the threat of long prison sentences. His strategy is to use the parliamentary election, which runs from Friday to Sunday, to undermine Mr Putin’s ruling United Russia party – even though officials have barred all Navalny supporters and other famous opposition figures from going to the ballot.

The idea, which Mr Navalny calls smart voting, is to unite opposition-minded voters around a particular candidate running against United Russia in each of the country’s 225 electoral districts. That candidate could be a liberal, a nationalist or a Stalinist. Before Russians go to the polls, they can enter their address into the “Navalny” smartphone app, which then responds with the names of the candidates they should vote for – whether or not voters agree with those individuals’ views.

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“We want more and more non-Kremlin-approved politicians to end up in parliaments, including regional ones,” Ruslan Shevdinov, one of Navalny’s colleagues working on the “smart voting” push, said in a telephone interview. “This, at any rate, creates turbulence in the system, which is very important to us.”

The smart voting strategy shows that the opposition movement inside Russia that the Kremlin has managed to crush in recent months is still capable of influencing political events from outside. It is also one of the reasons why this weekend’s elections will come with some degree of suspense, even if United Russia’s overall victory is assured.

“If you get the candidate’s name through smart voting and go to the polls, you will become 1,000 percent more influential and powerful than the version that complains and does nothing,” Mr Navalny said in prison. written in a letter from published On Wednesday, he appealed to his supporters to vote. “Don’t you want to try?” He asked. “And be a better version of yourself too?”

Similar tactical voting tactics have been tried before, not always with success. Brexit opponents employed it in Britain’s 2019 parliamentary elections, but were unsuccessful, as the Labor Party suffered its worst defeat in decades at the hands of the Conservatives.

However, Russia is a very different matter. Its nominal democracy is not free and fair, but the Kremlin still seeks a glimmer of popular legitimacy by holding elections in which a stable of sluggish parties usually split the opposition vote. The Navalny strategy, first deployed regionally in 2019, seeks to turn that system of “managed democracy” against Mr.

While Mr. Navalny’s personal approval rating in Russia remains low – independent surveyor Levada puts it here 14 percent In June – The officials are afraid of their team’s pushback.

The Russian Internet regulator has blocked access to the smart voting website and demanded that Google and Apple remove “Navalny” from their app stores. The companies did not do so, leading to fresh allegations of US interference in Russian elections. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria V. Zakharova claimed without providing evidence that smart voting was affiliated with the Pentagon.

Last week, the State Department called on US Ambassador to Moscow John J. Sullivan, which he described as “indisputable evidence of violations of Russian law by American ‘digital giants’ in the context of the preparation and conduct of elections.”

Grigory Golosov, a political scientist at the European University in St Petersburg who has studied smart voting, says the Kremlin has good reason to panic. Even a state-run pollster, VTsIOM, puts the current level of support for United Russia at 29 percent – ​​about 40 percent from the last election in 2016.

Noting that only a simple majority is needed to win Russia’s single-mandate districts, he said, a few extra percentage points generated by smart voting to advance a challenger to United Russia in a competitive field. may be sufficient.

Certainly, the perception of success is relative. United Russia is almost certain to retain its majority in the Duma, the lower house of parliament, as half of the 450 seats are divided by party lists. The ruling party is sure to get the most votes, and Russian elections are full of fraud.

But Mr Navalny’s aides say the election of a few dozen new members of parliament who oppose United Russia will also be important, as it will complicate the Kremlin’s behavior with the addition of a rubber-stamp legislature in recent years. And they insist that the vote-counting process is transparent enough in most parts of the country to make an effort to democratically oust United Russia lawmakers from power.

For now, the main opposition parties in parliament, the Communists and Nationalists, have mostly remained loyal to Mr. Putin. But it may change.

“If for some reason more serious political complications begin in Russia, the control of parliament becomes important,” Mr. Golosov said. “If the Kremlin becomes weak in the eyes of the opposition parties, they will start acting in their own interest.”

Mr Navalny’s staff members say he spent months analyzing every federal electoral district as well as regional and city elections that are taking place this weekend. The team of five analysts leading the project – Mr. Shevdinov; Mr. Navalny’s longtime Chief of Staff, Leonid Volkov; and three others – have been gathering for hours-long meetings several times a week. Mr Shevdinov said he consulted polling data, dozens of regional experts and reports from the ground to determine the person in the best position to defeat the United Russia candidate in each contest.

They also point to the 2019 elections to the Moscow City Duma, in which 20 candidates selected by Mr. Navalny’s team won, reducing the number of United Russia members in the legislature from 38 to 25, 45 of the seats. From.

“The Kremlin is trying to solidify the whole politics,” Mr Shveddinov said. “And yet, different flowers bloom.”

Mr Shveddinov, who is 25, fled Russia earlier this year. He spent 2020 in what he described as a modern-day exile, detained and sent to a year of compulsory military service to a remote outpost on an island in the Arctic Ocean. Now he’s abroad, hosting weekly youtube show With Mr. Volkov who wants to mobilize support for a smart voting strategy.

Mr Navalny, Russia’s most famous opposition figure, was poisoned by a military-grade nerve agent last year and arrested in January on his return to Moscow from treatment in Germany. His return was followed by nationwide protests, and Russia outlawed his movement and forced its top allies to flee.

On Wednesday, the Navalny team published its 1,234 federal and regional voting recommendations, waiting until two days before the election begins to prevent their choices from being removed from the ballot. For those who have “Navlany” installed on their smartphones, arrived by push notification: “Your candidates are already in the app. Open, look and vote!”

The team supported more than half of the Duma candidates, who were communists – even though party leader Gennady A. Zyuganov this year called Mr. Navalny a “traitor coming to set the country on fire”.

The strategy has stirred some discontent among Kremlin critics, particularly in places such as Moscow and St Petersburg where multiple opposition candidates are running in the same district. The risk is that the Navalny team could wrongly guess which candidate has the most support, and could end up splitting instead of consolidating the opposition vote.

In District 198 in Moscow, the Navalny team chose the 28-year-old manager Anastasia Bryukhanova, who works on urban improvement projects. Marina Litvinovich, another opposition candidate running in the same district, called the decision “a big mistake” on Twitter and Facebook and stopped supporting Ms Bryukhanova.

In an interview, Ms. Bryukhanova estimated that smart voting support could add at least seven percentage points to her result.

“That greatly increases our chances of winning,” she said.

Smart Voting aims to inspire people like Azalea Idrisova, 33, a mental health entrepreneur in Moscow, who said she was overwhelmed by the number of candidates and political parties on the ballot. She said she would follow the smart voting recommendations, even though she expected the election results to be false.

“All I can do is go vote,” she said.

Oleg Matsnev contributed reporting.

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