Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Ethnic Factor Played Key Role in United Russia’s Failure to Win in First Round in Irkutsk

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 22 – In yet another unintended consequence of Vladimir Putin’s regional amalgamation program, Buryat districts he arranged to be included in Irkutsk oblast appear to have been the source of votes that kept the pro-Kremlin United Russia party’s gubernatorial candidate there from winning in the first round.

            The case is interesting in its own right given the complexities of relations between Buryats and Russians in the Trans-Baikal, but it is important as an indication of something relatively few analysts have focused on: the way in which the ethnic factor plays out in Russian elections, even in the absence of regional, religious, or ethnic parties.

            In any political system, the impact of a minority on an electoral outcome is clearest when the election is close and the vote of the minority could make the difference between winning and losing, when the candidates on one or both sides appeal to the group, and when there is a tradition of the ethnic minority voting differently than the ethnic majority in the past.

            All these things are true in Irkutsk oblast, Sergey Basayev of the AsiaRussia portal writes in an article entitled “’The Buryat Factor’ in the Irkutsk Elections,” one of the most detailed examinations ever of how ethnicity plays a role in the electoral process in Putin’s Russian Federation (asiarussia.ru/articles/9176/).

            In the first round of gubernatorial elections on September 13, incumbent United Russia governor Sergey Yeroshenko won 49.60 percent, while his communist opponent Sergey Levchenko won 36.61 percent. Because no one won 50 percent, there will be a second round on September 27.

            Irkutsk was the only one of the 20 Russian regions where the incumbent did not win in the first direct elections of governors in Russia since 2005. In some, the incumbents won with “Chechen” style margins; in others, they slipped by; but only in Irkutsk did the United Russia candidate fail to get 50 percent. 

            There are at least three reasons why this happened, Basayev says. Someone had to be first; the communists built on their success in earlier municipal elections; and Irkutsk has a tradition of voting this way. In 2001, its voters sent the race into the second round – and many at the time blamed the Buryat vote or its falsification for that outcome.

            “In the political mythology of [the region] there is still alive the legend” that the man who was declared the winner would have lost had it not been for last minute “manipulations” of the votes from Buryat areas, which had been added to the Irkutsk oblast for the vote even though they were not formally part of the region.

            This time around the Buryats may have played a similar role not because they did not vote for the United Russia incumbent but because the level of turnout in Buryat areas was so much smaller than elsewhere. Had it been the same, the incumbent would have won easily in the first round.

            The incumbent is certainly going to try to boost turnout among the Buryats, and thus, Basayev says, if he can get Buryat turnout up to a figure within two or three percent of the region as a whole, “it is not excluded that in the second round the ‘Buryat factor’ will again as 14 years ago give victory to the current head of the region.”

            At the same time, the Buryat factor also plays a role in the calculations of the communist opposition candidate. On the one hand, he can expect to pick up support from those who voted for other opposition figures and who will be encouraged by the fact that they pushed the election into a second round.

            And on the other, the opponent clearly will see his task as boosting participation in predominantly Russian areas while doing little to boost it in Buryat ones – even as he tries to pick up some votes there by making promises to the Buryat community just as the incumbent governor has done.

            Because both candidates have promised to name a Buryat to be senator from Irkutsk – although different candidates – the Buryats are likely to win from the elections whoever comes out on top.  And that in turn will likely cause all future candidates to view them as a group to whom promises must be made and kept.

            Moreover, Basayev suggests, it has another consequence as well: because both competitors have to make promises to the Buryats in the hope of winning votes, the Buryats are in a position to vote on the basis of other identities and issues, something that makes the ethnic politics of these elections both less and more than it would otherwise be.


No comments:

Post a Comment