As I wrote in my post on the Moscow Duma elections, which took place on September 8, the electoral strategy of the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) – the main pro-Western opposition front to Putin headed by Navalny and his campaign manager Leonid Volkov – was the so-called “Smart Vote.” Claiming that many of their candidates had been unfairly denied registration, they compiled a list of candidates that they claimed had the highest chances of beating United Russia in their districts (okrugs) and called on supporters to tactically vote for them.
The results are in, and Navalny and his followers are claiming vindication for their strategy, with the opposition – mainly Communists, as well as some Yabloko, Fair Russia, and independent candidates – winning 20/45 Moscow City Duma seats. RFERL hyperbolically calls these elections a “new hope” in the struggle against Darth Putler; the Moscow hack pack uncritically accepts these claims, as do various “Russia hands” who rarely if ever even set foot in Russia.
In reality, this is all nothing more than self-congratulatory pablum.
First, let’s note that there were few people who cared about these elections, considering the 22% turnout and that the positions in question are rather irrelevant in the great scheme of things. Furthermore, United Russia’s popularity is near record lows, a lingering by-effect of the pensions reform last year. It is therefore not surprising that opposition candidates would meet with success in such an environment, regardless of how Navalny told them to vote. In Moscow, the KPRF is the default “protest” party, so a good performance from them was to be expected.
This point becomes especially obvious when one considers developments outside Moscow. For instance, as RT’s Bryan MacDonald notes, giving credit to the 34/35 seat victory of the nationalist LDPR in the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk – where the governor also belongs to the LDPR, and who won about 70% of the vote last year – seems far-fetched. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Far East and Siberian legislative assemblies, United Russia won solid majorities. Smart Vote was clearly irrelevant in all of those cases.
Happily, though, we don’t have to limit ourselves to unquantified speculation about the size of the Smart Vote effect, because we happened to get a clean, real life “experiment” that makes possible a much more precise estimate.
In the district of Chertanovo (okrug №.30), the three main contenders were United Russia-backed Margarita Rusetskaya, the Communist Vladislav Zhukovsky, and the independent Roman Yuneman. In a poll commissioned by Yuneman and carried out during August 23-26 by an independent organization, Yuneman was leading with 22.6% versus 19.7% for Rusetskaya and 13.1% for Zhukovsky.
Adjusting these poll results to remove undecideds while keeping the proportions between the three major candidates constant, and assuming that the three other minor candidates (from the Communists of Russia, LDPR, and Fair Russia) would have polled exactly as they did in the actual elections – with the result that all of their numbers would add up to 100% – these polls translate to a predicted vote of 31.8% for Yuneman, 27.7 for Rusetskaya, and 18.4% for Zhukovsky.
But the FBK refused to take this sociology into account, sticking with its endorsement of Zhukovsky instead. It is unclear why they did that. As Volkov admitted himself, the FBK did no polling of its own, relying instead on “models” whose methodologies were never made transparent to justify their endorsement of Zhukovsky over Yuneman. Perhaps Navalny had a good relationship with Zhukovsky and wanted to do his friend a favor, while others speculate of a deal between the FBK and the Communist Party.
Alternatively, perhaps Navaly and Volkov banally took exception to Yuneman as a pro-Russian, as opposed to pro-Western, opposition activist. Volkov even snidely implied that Yuneman is a sieg-heiling fascist, albeit making the caveat that this was “not so important” in the context of the Smart Vote.
While Yuneman is indeed an unapologetic Russian nationalism, his “Nazism” boils down to supporting the Donbass over the actual Nazis in the Azov battalion – not that the Ukrainophiles around Navalny would likely see it that way.
There happens to be circumstantial evidence for this interpretation in light of Smart Vote portraying the only other independent nationalist in these elections, Nadezhda Shalimova, as a regime candidate – an extraordinary claim (smear) that can be quickly browsing through her social media timeline, which is extremely critical of the “Rossiyanskaya Federatsiya” (a pejorative moniker for the Russian Federation that emphasizes its multicultural nature that is often used by Russian nationalists). Now just to be sure, Navalny & Co. have a perfect right to endorse anyone they want. But the Smart Vote wasn’t – supposedly – about supporting people they like and agree with, but about endorsing the people who were objectively likeliest to beat United Russia. In Chertanovo, that wasn’t Zhukovsky, not by a longshot.
Result? 29.5% for Rusetskaya (+1.8% relative to the adjusted polls – just within their 2% margin of error), 29.2% for Roman Yuneman (-2.6%), and 25.5% for Smart Vote-endorsed Zhukovsky (+7.1%).
What does this mean?
First – and we need to emphasize this – this means that Yuneman was correct that he was the most credible challenger to the United Russia candidate. Even though Smart Vote endorsed his direct rival, he still beat him by a handy margin.
Second, considering that a mere 84 votes separated Yuneman from Rusetskaya, this means that the single most unambiguous result of the Smart Vote was to deprive the opposition of a seat. Moreover, in Yuneman, this was an opposition that was truly independent, and not a member of one of the established opposition parties, such as Leonid Zyuganov, the grandson of the Communist Party warhorse who was shoehorned into power in my own home district with more than 60% of the vote.
Third, this suggests that the actual, electoral impact of Smart Vote was a rather modest 7% upwards shift in favor of the endorsed opposition candidate in the one district where we can compare pre-electoral polls with election results.
Since the Chertanovo elections featured two relatively competitive challengers to the United Russia candidate (both Yuneman and Zhukovsky would have handily beat Rusetskaya had the other not participated), we may posit that the Smart Vote effect was even stronger here than in less competitive districts, where only the stalwarts of one or another candidate would have bothered to turn up to vote, regardless of Smart Vote’s recommendation. To put it another way, Zhukovsky was “feeding” on a potential opposition electorate of Yuneman’s 31.8% (polls) plus the 15.8% that accrued to the three minor candidates (elections results). Consequently, Zhukovsky got 7.1%/47.6% ≈ 15% of the opposition electorate that was still in play.
In the interests of objectivity, I must also note that Smart Vote has been in action for more than a month now, so even the polls in August 23-26 would have already captured some of its impact – though presumably, interest in it peaked much closer to the election, so it probably wouldn’t understate the Smart Vote effect by much. Assuming that ~2/3 of interest and associated voting decisions came after that date – which is if anything a conservative estimate, as it is well known in political science that most voters make up their minds late – we may entertain a Smart Vote effect of 10% for Zhukovsky in Chertanovo. Repeating the calculation above, we get 10%/(47.6%+2.9%) ≈ 20%.
So instead of ascribing all 20/45 of the opposition seats the FBK claimed to have “won” in Moscow, I propose that a more “scientific” way of determining its real impact is to:
- Consider the 20 districts where the Smart Vote-endorsed candidate won.
- For each case, calculate the share of the vote that accrued neither to the United Russia candidate, nor to the Smart Vote endorsed candidate.
- Take 20% of that pool to get the percentage explained by the Smart Vote effect (denoted as “SV”).
- Consider that an FBK-enabled victory *if* the difference between the Smart Vote-endorsed candidate and the United Russia candidate is less than SV.
According to quick calculations, only the opposition victories in the following districts can be considered to be “accomplishments” of the Smart Vote effect, i.e. where SV < % winner – % “regime” candidate.
These are: #2, #3, #16, #19.*
Meanwhile, the Chertanovo region #30 is a direct example where the FBK’s intervention resulted in a United Russia victory, so by all rights it should be subtracted from their total.
Conclusion: Navalny’s much vaunted Smart Vote won the Moscow opposition a net total of three seats that it otherwise wouldn’t have.
Western journalists are certainly not going to write about this, because most of them are basically Navalny groupies, and this hardly reflects well on him (even if taking credit for things he didn’t accomplish is his forte). Furthermore, they certainly couldn’t care less that a pro-Russian nationalist was deprived of his victory – while they have no problems with nationalist as such, that only applies when it is channeled in an explicitly pro-Western or Ukrainian direction.
For their part, Russian nationalists would do well to internalize that the liberals are not their friends – while they’d be happy to use them as shock troops against Putin, they’ll be told, like the Moor, to go home as soon as they outlive their usefulness. Even during the Bolotnaya protests, the nationalists had a hard time convincing the liberals to include nationalists imprisoned under Article 282 “hate speech” laws as political prisoners. While the older generation of nationalists who participated in Bolotnaya and the Ukrainian events harbor few illusions about the liberals, this is a lesson that constantly needs to be relearned as younger cohorts enter their ranks.
* #15, #24, #44, and #45 (the one with the Chechen academic) were close but insufficient through my criteria, though it is certainly possible since the 20% is an estimate and was applied to the actual results, as opposed to early polls. But even counting those, 3+4-1(Chertanovo) = 6/45 is still not a particularly crushing performance. Certainly there were plenty of districts where the opposition won by >10% and for which the Smart Vote certainly can’t take any credit for.