Valentin Konovalov becomes third Russian opposition candidate to win provincial polls this year

Konovalov’s victory in the Khakassian Republic, and the likelihood of another communist candidate, Andrey Ischenko, winning in the province of Primorsky krai in December, indicate a rising discontent with president Vladimir Putin and his United Russia party

30-year-old Valentin Konovalov won the run-off unopposed in Khakassia, after incumbent head of Republic Victor Zimin and other candidates pulled out of the race.

On November 11, Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) candidate Valentin Konovalov was elected as the head of the Khakassian Republic in the Siberian federal district. Konovalov joins Sergey Levchenko, governor of Irkutsk oblast, and Andrey Klychkov, governor of Oryol oblast, to become the third CPRF governor in the country.

30-year-old Konovalov is among the three opposition candidates who have clinched victories this year in direct elections against candidates of the ruling party, United Russia, to which the current President Vladimir Putin also belongs. These victories are being seen as a sign of rising discontent against both Putin and his party’s hegemony.

An unprecedented election

Konovalov’s victory came following a number of peculiar developments. The CPRF candidate secured the largest share of votes in the first round of elections on September 9, with a lead of 12.4% over the incumbent Viktor Zimin. The two candidates were expected to face off in the second round. However, on September 21, Zimin withdrew his candidature, stating health reasons.

According to election laws, the candidate with the next highest number of votes is supposed to contest, which in this case was Andrey Filyagin of A Just Russia, a democratic socialist party. Filyagin had polled at 11.2% votes in the first round, which was less than the margin between the first two candidates. On October 2, Filyagin too withdrew his candidature. A few days later, the only other candidate, Alexander Myakhar, also refused to contest. This was the first time since the dissolution of the Soviet Union that a candidate ran unopposed. This resulted in the election being postponed until November 11, when the Central Election Commission permitted the elections to be carried out without any opposition. Instead of a second candidate, the commission put up an “Against All” option and stipulated that Konovalov would still need half the votes to be in his favour.

On November 11, with a slightly increased voter turnout in the second round (45.7%) as compared to the first (41.8%), Konovalov secured around 57.6% of the votes and won the election. He will become the fourth head of the Khakassian Republic in January 2019.

Fallout of pension reforms

A protest against the increase in retirement age, organized by the CPRF in Moscow in July 2018. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Earlier this year, in the presidential elections, Vladimir Putin won with a whopping 76.7% of the votes, the highest margin in post-Soviet Russia. But with the election results in Khakassia, three states have now voted in candidates from opposition parties to power, defeating United Russia incumbents. The other two are Sergey Furgal, governor of Khabarovsk krai, and Vladimir Sipgay, governor of Vladimir oblast (both an oblast and a krai are equivalent to provinces).  Both candidates belong to the extreme-right Liberal Democratic Party (LPDR). For over a decade, governorships were usually won by leaders of United Russia or candidates supported by the party. At best, the odd opposition candidate would secure a surprise victory.

A recent series of agitations against pension reform may explain some of these results. Between July and September and from November 5-7, Russia was swept by waves of protests against the Putin administration’s decision to increase the retirement age for pensions. The reform increased the retirement age for men from 60 to 65, and for women from 55 to 63. The average life expectancy in Russia is around 71 years (66 for men and around 77 for women). The reform meant that an average Russian had to work for almost the entirety of their adult life to be eligible for pension

The protests were led largely by CPRF, with the support of other leftist parties. It was the longest and possibly largest nation-wide agitations since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The communists organized large demonstrations and sustained the movement for over two months. In the end, the government had to retreat, bringing down the retirement age for women from 63 to 60. While the movement was not able to last beyond a point due to the unrelenting attitude of the government, the people continued to seethe.

Being at the forefront of the movement, the CPRF was one of the major beneficiaries in the local elections that followed. While the LPDR was not actively involved in the protests, its political platform has been that of economic protectionism, placing it against pension reforms. Thus, some portion of the anti-United Russia vote seems to have gone to them as well.

Is another communist victory around the corner?

Primorsky krai, the eastern-most federal subject of Russia, is where the fallout of the protests was most apparent. In September, gubernatorial elections in this federal subject (an equivalent of a state or a province in Russia) ended up being bitterly contested, and the results were finally declared invalid.

The elections were held almost immediately after the peak of the protests. In the first round, no candidate secured the required number of votes. Then incumbent acting governor Andrey Tarasenko of United Russia came in first with 46.6% votes, followed by Andrey Ischenko of the CPRF with 26.6% of the total votes.

In the second round, a considerable chunk of the opposition votes went to Ischenko, who was among the leaders of the protests in the region. However, the final results were deeply controversial. Ischenko had a 1-2% lead over the United Russia candidate Tarasenko up until the counting of 99% of the votes. However, when the last 1% was counted, Tarasenko emerged the victor, which implied that he had won almost all the votes counted towards the end. CPRF contested the results, alleging electoral manipulations. After reviewing the complaints, the Central Election Commission invalidated the results and scheduled fresh elections on December 16.

The United Russia party has now replaced Tarasenko with veteran politician Oleg Kozhemyako as their candidate. Kozhemyako also took over from Tarasenko as acting governor. Ischenko is the CPRF candidate and opinion polls have placed him in the lead.

An Ischenko victory will send a strong message across the country as Kozhemyako is no novice. He has previously served as the governor of Sakhalin and Amur oblasts, and as the Head of the former federal subject of Koryak. While he has always stood as an independent candidate, he has had strong support from United Russia and Vladimir Putin, and has often come to the party’s aid by defeating any emerging opposition with great ease. The upcoming election in the marginal federal subject of Primorsky krai thus will have huge national implications as well and will be closely watched across the world.

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