On September 8, Moscow will hold its mayoral election. Six candidates are vying for the post, but only two can be considered serious contenders: the incumbent, Sergei Sobyanin, and anticorruption campaigner Alexei Navalny. As in previous years, a part of the opposition is calling for a boycott of the vote. IMR Senior Policy Advisor Vladimir Kara-Murza suggests that this tactic is both misguided and counterproductive.



In the run-up to the September election for Moscow mayor—Russia’s main political event of the year (or, perhaps, a prelude to the main political events)—opponents of the current regime have been arguing over the tactics they should adopt. Should other non-Kremlin contenders withdraw in favor of the main opposition candidate, Alexei Navalny, in order to clearly define the alternative, or should they remain on the ballot in order to increase the likelihood of a runoff? Should people vote on principle or “tactically,” for any candidate except the Kremlin’s? Can Kremlin opponents, from a moral standpoint, back someone other than Navalny in a situation in which he is not only the recognized face of the Russian protest movement but also a soon-to-be political prisoner?

As in past years, there have also been calls for a boycott—despite the fact that both Russian and international experience of confronting authoritarian regimes has shown the inadequacy of this approach. The chief lesson of past electoral boycotts is that a refusal to engage in a contest—even an unequal, undemocratic, risky, or dishonest contest—is not only ineffective but counterproductive and almost always plays into the hands of the ruling regime.

The chief lesson of past electoral boycotts is that a refusal to engage in a contest is counterproductive and almost always plays into the hands of the regime.

This was the case in Zimbabwe in 1995, when the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) boycotted the election, handing Robert Mugabe full control over Parliament. It was the case in Serbia in 1997, when the democratic coalition led by Zoran Đinđić refused to participate in parliamentary elections, making it easier for Slobodan Milošević to prolong his rule. And it was the case in Venezuela in 2005, when a boycott by most opposition forces allowed Hugo Chávez to form a puppet legislature and amend the constitution. In all of these cases, regime opponents later admitted that the boycott was a mistake. American political scientist Matthew Frankel, who has studied nearly two hundred cases of electoral boycotts, estimates that in only 4 percent of cases has the boycott benefited the opposition (mostly in elections with a minimum turnout requirement—a legal condition abolished in Russia in 2006). The expert’s conclusion is categorical: “Boycotts almost always end in failure . . . [and] result in . . marginalization of the boycotting group, [and] further empowerment of the existing ruler and his party.”

The opposition’s participation does not “legitimize” unfree elections, as those in favor of boycotts suggest, but rather shows, visibly and without doubt, the true nature of these elections and mobilizes citizens in defense of their rights and their votes. Few would argue that 100,000 people would have turned out in Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Avenue in December 2011 were it not for the participation in the Duma elections, the thousands of independent poll monitors (mostly from the Yabloko Party) who demonstrated the breathtaking scope of election fraud, and the widespread public indignation over the blatant theft of millions of votes in broad daylight. If, as the “boycottists” urge, supporters of the opposition had stayed in their kitchens and given up their votes in advance, where and what would they have gone out to defend?


Sergei Sobyanin (left) and Alexei Navalny are considered the main contenders for the Moscow mayor's office.


“A boycott will not yield quick practical results,” Russian human rights legend Vladimir Bukovsky wrote in early 2012. “Last December has shown that of the many aspects of unfair elections, the people are most angered by one—stolen votes. . . . If this is the case, we should go and vote, and then catch the thieves red-handed.” Modern history includes many cases in which an opposition’s participation in unfree elections and the ensuing mass protests have led to a peaceful regime change and the dismantling of authoritarianism. It is instructive to again recall Serbia, where in 2000, three years after the mistaken boycott, the united opposition fielded its own presidential candidate and, with the support of tens of thousands of people who went into the streets of Belgrade to defend their votes, forced Milošević’s criminal regime to give up power. Can even one example be found of an authoritarian regime stepping down as a result of a boycott?

Political analyst Lilia Shevtsova has observed that historically, “as regimes and their ability to control election results weakened . . . participation [by the opposition] was, in several cases, decisive for the peaceful exit of authoritarianism.” Even in countries where full victory has yet to be achieved, the opposition’s participation in elections has weakened the dictatorship and narrowed its room for maneuvering—as was the case in Zimbabwe, where the MDC in 2008 won a plurality of parliamentary seats, forcing the ruling party to share power, or in Venezuela, where Chávez’s opponents took more than a third of congressional seats in 2010, leaving the regime without a constitutional majority. It may be added that having representation in official structures can have very practical significance. “Our situation . . . is becoming more and more reminiscent of Soviet times,” wrote Bukovsky, arguing against an electoral boycott. “Now we must think about how to defend political prisoners, how to get them out of psychiatric hospitals and prison camps. In such a situation, having even one member of Parliament gives us a technical possibility to defend someone. Let us agree that if we were offered such a possibility in the 1970s, we would not have rejected it.”

The regime is not afraid of a boycott. It is only afraid of public oversight of the election and mass street protests against fraud.

The idea of a boycott appears especially absurd in Moscow, where almost all polling places are covered by independent monitors, where instances of ballot stuffing and fraud immediately become public information, where access to independent media is much higher than it is in the provinces, and where—even according to the official figures—more than 50 percent of voters in 2012 rejected Vladimir Putin. The regime is not afraid of a boycott. The fewer opposition supporters use their ballots, the less the regime will have to rely on ballot stuffing and outright fraud, and the easier it will be for the authorities not only to declare “victory,” but also to claim that the election was “fair.” The number of votes for the ruling party’s candidate—mostly determined by administrative pressure on voters—will always stay the same. A boycott would only harm the opposition.

No, the regime is not afraid of a boycott. It is only afraid of public oversight of the election and mass street protests against fraud—in other words, of a repeat of December 2011. This is why the authorities are doing their utmost to convince society that the election will be fair—by allowing the main opposition candidate on the ballot, installing electronic voting machines and video cameras at polling places, and limiting voting by absentee certificates. These are not “gifts” from the Kremlin, but the direct result of its fear of new street protests in Moscow. Forcing the regime into this corner—either hold fair elections or face mass protests—should be the principal goal of the opposition. Russian society cannot afford to waste this chance. This means that on voting day on September 8, there must be a maximum turnout, thorough monitoring of the vote count, and a readiness to react quickly and on a large scale in case of another theft of votes. And, most certainly, there should not be any boycotts.