Despite doubts that it would do so, the Kremlin agreed to restore the “against all” ballot option in elections for positions at all levels of government, except presidential elections. On January 17, the State Duma passed this bill on the first reading. The “against all” option, abolished by Vladimir Putin in 2006, is being revived in the context of the electoral system reform. According to political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya, the Kremlin has been forced to adapt to the new rules of the game, which it can no longer fully control.
The Kremlin prefers to use others to pass unpopular decisions. This is what happened in the case of the “against all” ballot option. In 2006, Tver region lawmakers from both pro-regime and opposition parties introduced a bill to the State Duma on abolishing the “against all” option on election ballots. The ruling party supported the bill, which was then quickly passed on all three readings and signed by the president. The Kremlin did not trouble itself with explanations, leaving that task to lawmakers and pro-Kremlin experts, who said that the law was a necessary step in developing a sense of civic responsibility among the population, which was allegedly misusing the protest vote.
More sophisticated experts referred to the international experience. The “against all” ballot option is in fact rather exotic. It appeared in 1993 and at the time reflected the political will of the Russian elite with regard to democracy. This option was introduced in a piece of legislation authored by, among others, Victor Sheinis, a co-founder of the Yabloko Party and a member of the State Duma’s 1st and 2nd convocations. In other countries, however, this option is used only in exceptional cases. This is understandable: the development of democracy implies the appearance of real alternatives. In “transitional democracies,” the government’s administrative resources are still rather strong, and consequently, the “against all” option becomes a sort of insurance against their potentially abusive practices.
However, the existence of such an insurance was not part of the Kremlin’s calculations. As a result, the federal government first allowed the abolition of the “against all” ballot option in regional elections, and then the same thing was done on the federal level. In 2006, according to the Tver lawmakers’ explanatory note, their proposition was “based on the necessity of increasing voters’ political consciousness and activity.” Interestingly, according to a poll conducted in 2006 by Bashkirova and Partners market research agency, the majority of voters selected the “against all” ballot option from the list of Vladimir Putin’s potential successors. Putin himself was not on the list, because the constitution prevented him from running for a third term. The Kremlin went to a great deal of trouble to maximally reduce the number of participants in the elections so that only players from the “system” would remain.
This narrowed the voters’ political choice and consequently increased by many times the risk posed by the “against all” option, which was further illustrated by the election results. In the December 7, 2003, parliamentary elections, the “against all” option won in three single-member districts. In the December 26, 2004, Ulyavovsk gubernatorial election runoff, the same option received 25.16 percent of the vote, coming in second place; in the December 5, 2004, Bryansk gubernatorial elections, it came in second, with 20.57 percent of the vote; and in the February 6, 2005, Nenets autonomous region gubernatorial election runoff, it came in third, with 20.21 percent of the vote. In the 2003 parliamentary elections, 4.7 percent of the voters supported the “against all” option, and in the 2004 presidential elections, 3.5 percent supported it. In this context, the Kremlin preferred to abolish the “against all” ballot option altogether, which resulted in a wave of criticism from the opposition.
However, discussion about restoring the option was renewed in 2010: Federation Council Speaker Sergey Mironov put forward this idea during a meeting with President Dmitri Medvedev. Although Medvedev probably sympathized with this idea, the discussion never went further at the time. In September 2013, a similar initiative was proposed by the new Federation Council speaker, Valentina Matvienko, and a corresponding bill was introduced in the State Duma. At first, the Kremlin threw cold water on the idea. Matvienko provoked an argument between Kremlin strategists, dividing those who had worked for the Kremlin when the decision to abolish the “against all” option was made from those who supported its restoration. Those who initiated and implemented the idea in 2006 tried to defend their decision against the charges made in the new bill’s explanatory note, which claimed that the abolition of the “against all” option had produced such negative outcomes as a noticeable decrease in voter turnout, the spoiling of ballots, and an ongoing situation in which citizens supported a “marginal candidate even without sympathizing with him.”. According to polls conducted by the Levada Center, 74 percent of Russians support the restoration of the “against all” ballot option.
The Kremlin’s efforts are directed at minimizing the electoral success of the opposition, for which purpose many spoiler parties are being created. The “against all” ballot option will compete not only with the ruling party but also with the opposition.
United Russia member Vladimir Pligin served as a mediator in the debate by promising to “take into account the motives behind the abolition of this option,” including consideration of the fact that the objective of elections—“forming governmental bodies”—may be hindered by the “against all” ballot option, although this is hardly probable in today’s Russia. Secretary of United Russia General Council Sergei Neverov defined the party’s position: “The return to this option is possible and is supported by many of our opponents. So if everyone supports it, we will raise no objection.” By “everyone” he probably meant the Kremlin’s official position: if the Kremlin embraced this idea, then the party would back it too. Prime Minister Medvedev publicly supported the return of the “against all” option by declaring that citizens with pro-opposition attitudes should be able to vote not only “out of spite,” (that is, for anyone except the current government), but also “against all.”
The restoration of the protest vote was based on rather clear political motives. First of all, the number of political parties will increase (currently, there are more than 70 registered parties). The controlled participation of the nonsystemic opposition in the elections will also be affected. Almost all of the Kremlin’s efforts are now directed at minimizing the electoral success of the real opposition, for which purpose many spoiler parties are being created. In this situation, the “against all” ballot option will potentially compete not only with the ruling party but also with the opposition. Furthermore, the Kremlin has restored individual single-member districts in parliamentary elections. The votes “against all”—just like those of the losing candidates—will be redistributed in favor of the winners, allowing the ruling party to increase its votes.
The opposition met the Kremlin’s decision with a mixed response. On the one hand, the abolition of the protest vote in 2006 gave rise to criticism. However, its restoration in 2014 has been seen as a manipulative move by the government, which is trying to adapt the rules of an increasingly risky political game to suit itself. Former Moscow mayoral candidate Alexei Navalny called the government’s initiative “stupid”: “Whereas before, the victory of the ‘against all’ option meant a rerun of the elections, now this norm is not being restored. Voting ‘against all’ will become meaningless voting that benefits United Russia and pro-regime candidates.” As is well known, according to the court’s sentence in the Kirovles case, Navalny himself has been deprived of the right to take elective office. The “against all” option could prove useful to his electorate also.
State Duma member Dmitri Gudkov has expressed concern that this option will be used to dilute “protest votes.” The Liberal Democratic Party of Russia has also criticized this idea. “You are just envious that [people] vote for anyone except United Russia,” party deputy Sergei Ivanov said. However, according to Navalny, United Russia may fall into its own trap: “Personally, I have a feeling that the ‘against all’ option will affect Putin and United Russia more than the opposition. Our voters are people who vote consciously. I think that we will be able to explain to them that voting ‘against all’ when there is a real opposition candidate will mean voting for United Russia,” Navalny wrote, adding that the “against all” option has the possibility of causing the systemic opposition the worst damage.
Navalny is right: Russians have become rather tired of parliamentary parties in the last nine years. The crisis of the systemic opposition, in which the people’s confidence has considerably decreased, is obviously one of the main political outcomes of Putin’s rule. This is why the possibility that the bill will be significantly drained of its contents during State Duma readings should not be ruled out: for instance, the pro-Kremlin Foundation for Civil Society Development, headed by the former leader of the presidential administration’s internal politics department, Konstantin Kostin, proposed to restore the “against all” option only in local elections.
The return of the “against all” ballot option is a result of the changed political situation in the country after the mass protests of late 2011 and early 2012, when new political leaders emerged and the urban middle class demonstrated its potential. The Kremlin frantically began trying to adapt to the new situation—on the one hand, fearing delegitimization of the nation’s elections if rigid rules were preserved, and on the other hand, fearing a loss of control over the political process. In response, the government restored gubernatorial elections and simplified the process of political party registration. Now the “against all” ballot option is being restored as well. All these efforts, however, are intended to prevent the destruction of the system from within and the devaluation of the key elements upon which Putin’s regime is based.
This new policy, however, does not affect presidential elections, for which the protest vote will not be introduced, since it cannot be arrested (unlike an opposition candidate,) or discredited on state-owned TV channels. Consequently, it might be better for the Kremlin that there be no such option at all.