The presidential election drama in Ukraine has distracted attention from two key political developments in Russia that are also connected to executive-branch elections. First, on December 3 the Russian State Duma passed a law with new procedures for electing the heads of Russian Federation regions and republics. The new law enables the president to appoint regional governors at his own discretion. Second, six gubernatorial races were held on Sunday December 5. Two regions elected new governors, while the other four posts will be decided in runoff elections on December 26. The vote had been planned before the new law on appointed governors was signed.
The gubernatorial elections indicated that Russian voters do not trust candidates from United Russia, the pro-Kremlin party that currently dominates the State Duma. Only in Astrakhan region did the United Russia candidate — acting governor Alexander Zhilkin — score a clear victory, with some two-thirds of the vote. In Pskov region, (holding a runoff after no candidate received a majority in the November 14 vote) local businessman Mikhail Kuznetsov won 48.83% of the voter, defeating the candidate from United Russia, Yevgeny Mihailov, who polled at 41.40%.
Voters in Bryansk region did not give United Russia candidate Nikolai Denin a wide enough margin to secure a first-round victory. He received only 44.54% of the vote. In Kamchatka the United Russia candidate, former Petropavlovsk-Kamchatski mayor Alexander Dudnikov, received only 10.39% of the ballots and lost his chance to advance to the second round. In Volgograd region, United Russia’s candidate, State Duma representative Vladimir Goryunov only came in fifth place. Finally, in Ulyanovsk region, Sergei Morozov, the mayor of Dimitrovgrad and endorsed by Russian President Vladimir Putin and United Russia, got only 28% of the vote.
But the biggest surprise in the governors’ races was a victory for the “against all” ballot option. For the first time in the history of regional elections, “against all” won 20.81% of the votes cast (Izvestiya, December 7).
Such a cynical voters’ attitude toward candidates supported by United Russia sends a strong signal to the Russian authorities: people want new, uncorrupted leaders to head regional governments, politicians with “clean hands,” such as Mikhail Kuznetsov in Pskov region. Born in 1968, Kuznetsov is a former commando, known for his parachuting skills. Kuznetsov acknowledges that his win may be explained by the simple fact that his constituents “had become tired of today’s authorities” (Tribuna, December 8).
Given the new legislation, these gubernatorial elections will be the last ones in Russia in the near future. The new law, proposed by President Putin, effectively cancels the direct election of governors. Now the president will nominate a new governor at least 35 days before the expiration of an incumbent governor’s term. The local legislative assembly will then have 14 days to ratify the president’s candidate. If the local assembly twice fails to approve a presidential nominee, both sides begin a one-month consultative process. After that, the president may either appoint an acting governor — to serve for no more than six months — or dismiss the legislature. If the local legislative assembly rejects a nominee for a third time, the president will have the undisputed right to dissolve the local legislature.
The State Duma had a surprise waiting for the newly elected governors. Following recommendations from United Russia, the State Duma stipulated that any governors who were elected before the new law enters into force must seek the president’s approval. Specifically, the newly elected governors must ask the president for his “vote of confidence.” If the president “trusts” a governor, he then “appoints” this elected governor to be head of the region that elected him. Thus, if the president loses confidence in such an appointed-elected governor he can discharge him at any moment. According to newspaper reports, none of the new governors has indicated plans to apply for such presidential endorsement (Pravda, December 7; Nezavisimaya gazeta, December 8).