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Could Navalny’s “smart vote” strategy upset the Russian elections?

MOSCOW – In an undisclosed location outside of Russia, five people have been meeting regularly for months to imagine how to deal an unlikely blow to President Vladimir V. Putin in this weekend’s Russian elections.

The five are allies of the imprisoned opposition leader Alexei A. Navalny, all exiled due to the threat of long prison terms. Their strategy is to use the parliamentary elections which take place from Friday to Sunday to undermine Mr Putin’s ruling United Russia party, even though authorities have banned just about all supporters of Navalny and other well-known figures. opposition to go to the polls.

The idea, which Navalny calls smart voting, is to rally opposition voters around a particular candidate running against United Russia in each of the country’s 225 constituencies. This candidate could be a liberal, a nationalist or a Stalinist. Before the 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 them. opinions of these people.

“We want as many politicians not approved by the Kremlin as possible to end up in parliaments, including regional ones,” said Ruslan Shaveddinov, one of Navalny’s allies working on the “smart vote” push, at the meeting. ‘a telephone interview. “That, in any case, creates turbulence in the system, which is very, very important to us.”

The smart voting strategy shows how an opposition movement that the Kremlin has managed to crush inside Russia in recent months is still able to influence political events from outside. It is also a reason why the elections this weekend will be accompanied by a certain suspense, even if an overall victory for United Russia is assured.

“If you get a candidate’s name through a smart vote and go to the polls, you will become 1000% more influential and powerful than that version of you who complains and does nothing,” wrote Mr Navalny in a letter from prison published on Wednesday. , imploring his supporters to vote. “Don’t you want to try?” He asked. “And also become a better version of yourself?” “

A similar tactical voting strategy has been tried before, not always successfully. Opponents of Brexit used it in the 2019 UK parliamentary election but failed as the Labor Party suffered the worst defeat in decades at the hands of the Tories.

However, Russia is a much different case. Its nominal democracy is not free and fair, but the Kremlin always seeks the sparkle of popular legitimacy by holding elections in which a stable of lackluster parties usually divide the opposition vote. The Navalny strategy, deployed for the first time at the regional level in 2019, seeks to turn this system of “led democracy” against Mr Putin.

While Mr Navalny’s personal approval rating remains low in Russia – independent pollster Levada estimated it at 14% in June – authorities appear frightened by his team’s push.

Russia’s internet regulator blocked access to the smart voting website and demanded that Google and Apple remove “Navalny” from their app stores. The companies failed to do so, prompting new allegations of US interference in the Russian elections. Maria V. Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, claimed without providing evidence that smart voting was affiliated with the Pentagon.

Last week, the Foreign Office summoned US Ambassador to Moscow John J. Sullivan to present what he called “compelling evidence of violation of Russian law by America’s” digital giants. ” the framework of the preparation and the conduct of the elections. “

Grigorii Golosov, a political scientist at the European University of St. Petersburg who has studied smart voting, says the Kremlin has good reason to be nervous. Even a state pollster, VTsIOM, puts the current level of support for United Russia at 29%, down from around 40% before the last election in 2016.

Since Russia’s single-mandate constituencies only require a simple majority to win, he said, a few extra percentage points generated by smart voting might be enough to push a challenger past United Russia in a competitive arena. .

Of course, the notion of success is relative. United Russia is almost certain to retain its majority in the lower house of parliament, the Duma, as half of the 450 seats are distributed by party list. The ruling party is sure to get the most votes, and the Russian election is riddled with fraud.

But Mr Navalny’s allies say even electing a few dozen new MPs who oppose United Russia would be important, as it would complicate the Kremlin’s relationship with what in recent years has only been an approving legislature. . And they insist that in much of the country, the vote counting process is transparent enough that an attempt to overthrow United Russia lawmakers by democratic means is worth it.

So far, the main opposition parties in parliament, the Communists and Nationalists, have been mostly loyal to Mr Putin. But that could change.

“If more serious political complications were to start in Russia for some reason, then parliamentary control would become critical,” Golosov said. “If the Kremlin weakens in the eyes of the opposition parties, they will start to act in their own interests.”

Mr Navalny’s staff say they spent months analyzing each federal constituency, as well as the regional and municipal elections which are also taking place this weekend. The team of five analysts leading the project – M. Shaveddinov; Mr. Navalny’s longtime chief of staff Leonid Volkov; and three others – met for one-hour meetings several times a week. Shaveddinov said he looked at data from polls, dozens of regional experts and reports from the field to determine who is best placed to defeat the United Russia candidate in each contest.

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

“The Kremlin is trying to overturn all politics with concrete,” Shaveddinov said. “And again, various flowers are blooming.”

Mr Shaveddinov, 25, fled Russia earlier this year. He spent 2020 in what he describes as the modern day exile, detained and sent to a year of compulsory military service at a remote outpost on an island in the Arctic Ocean. Now he is abroad and hosts weekly YouTube shows with Mr. Volkov seeking to mobilize support for the smart voting strategy.

Mr Navalny, Russia’s best-known opposition figure, was poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent last year and arrested in January upon his return to Moscow after treatment in Germany. Nationwide protests followed his return, and Russia banned his movement and forced key allies to flee.

On Wednesday, Navalny’s team released their 1,234 federal and regional voting recommendations, waiting two days before the start of the ballot to prevent their choices from being withdrawn from the ballot. For those who have installed “Navalny” on their smartphones, the news arrived by push notification: “Your candidates are already in the app. Open it, watch and vote!

More than half of the Duma candidates backed by the team were Communists – although party leader Gennadi A. Zyuganov this year called Navalny “a traitor who came to set the country on fire” .

The strategy has sparked some dissatisfaction among critics of the Kremlin, especially in places like Moscow and St. Petersburg where several opposition candidates are running in the same district. The risk is that Navalny’s team will misunderstand the most supported candidate and end up dividing rather than consolidating the opposition vote.

In District 198, Moscow, Navalny’s team chose Anastasiya Bryukhanova, a 28-year-old executive who works on urban improvement projects. Another opposition candidate running in the same district, Marina Litvinovich, took to Twitter and Facebook to call the decision a “big mistake” and did not support Ms Bryukhanova.

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

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

The goal of smart voting is to motivate people like Azalia Idrisova, a 33-year-old 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 if she expected the election results to be falsified.

“All I can do is go vote,” she said.

Oleg Matsnev contributed reporting.