Voting “Against Everyone”: the last resort of democracy?
Interview for the site Kreml.org
Although the column “against everyone” appeared almost simultaneously with the conduct of the first fair elections in our country, voting “against everyone” has never been a decisive factor at the federal level. Usually only 3-4% of voters used this column in their ballots during the federal elections. However in 2003, if worst comes to worst, voting “against everyone” can even collect the second highest vote. All the latest election campaigns in different regions of the country have demonstrated extremely high level of voting “against everyone” and there are serious concerns about such a tendency becoming national.
Protest voting can be relatively divided into two groups: the protest voting itself and the indifference voting. As a rule, the first group is connected to a situation when someone from the election race favourites is not admitted to the elections for one reason or another. We can trace it quite well in the example of the 1999 elections to the State Duma, when in many regions the registration of certain famous figures, as for example general Makashov, was cancelled and that has lead to an outburst of voting “against everyone”. By way of illustration, in the Achinsky Raion of Krasnoyarsky Krai where Anatoly Petrovich Bykov was expected but was not found in the ballot, there were very high rates of voting “against everyone”. This is a “pure” protest voting. This voting can be either against the fact that some definite person was not admitted to elections, or it can be a protest voting in principle – expression of lack of confidence to the bodies of power of one region or of the whole country, lack of confidence to the system of power itself. It can be an evidence of dissatisfaction with the concrete social and economic policy, with general socio-economic conditions, decline in revenues, with the increase of public utilities tariffs, etc. Such factors are very numerous. The second case when people vote “against everyone” is an indifference voting. Usually it happens during combined elections, when for example a governor and deputies of self-government institutions are elected simultaneously. As a rule, voters direct their attention to the most interesting and bigger scale campaign, so after receiving the other ballots for elections they have not been keeping up with and do not want to be troubled with, they vote “against everyone”. This happened in Moscow where elections of the raion assemblies counselors were combined with the elections to the State Duma. People went to the polls and voted consciously for partisan lists to the State Duma, even in the single-mandate districts, but they did not know candidates running for counselors and so voted “against everyone”. This is a “pure” vote of indifference.
On March 2, 2003 simultaneous elections to the State Council and bodies of self-government in Komi Republic were held. As a result municipal councils were not formed in three large cities of the region (Syktyvkar, Pechora and Vorkuta), as more than half of their seats turned out vacant because of the high percent of votes “against everyone”. It is beyond any doubt that there would be definitely less votes “against everyone” in local elections if they were not paired, in other words if the State Council, heads of administration and bodies of self-government were not elected on one and the same one day. Advantages and disadvantages of having such a column in a ballot are arguable, but I suppose that it at least demonstrates that the election system is still developing. Let’s say, western election systems are conservative enough and change very slowly. I think that voting “against everyone” is a very interesting phenomenon and may be even viewed as a very important and necessary thing in Russian conditions. Practice shows that often enough various sophisticated techniques are used to “filter out” the “unwanted” candidates, political parties, blocs – so that only “those who are necessary” are admitted to the elections. And it is voting “against everyone” that enables the civil society to voice its protest against such violations of their rights. In a certain sense it is the last loophole, the last chance for voters to express their displeasure with the course of the campaign. If this opportunity is removed, then citizens will have the only way of protest – absenteeism. Correspondingly, it is voting “against everyone” that impels to go to the polls even those voters who do not have their own candidates, their own party in these elections. Without it people won’t have any motive to vote and there may be problems of having valid elections in the whole number of regions.
There is a popular stereotype that voting “against everyone” depends on the methods of campaigning, and appears when it is conducted with dirty methods, “black PR” and lots of compromising material. When the amount of negative information exceeds a certain limit, voters simply get totally disenchanted with all the candidates. Very often a person having learnt some negative information about the candidate he intended to vote for becomes disenchanted with him, and he was not interested in voting for the others from the very beginning. He can either vote “against everyone” or not go to the polling station at all. Therefore campaigns with lots of negative information raise the rate of protest voting. But there is another very important moment. In practice really serious campaigns with lots of negative information and a very rigid struggle raise the interest of voters to the given election. There are lots of examples of keen uncompromising campaigns leading eventually to the increase of turnout: on the one hand voting “against everyone” increased, on the other hand the poll itself was heavier. We can observe it, for example, in Krasnoyarsky Krai elections where the poll was very high while the campaign had been very dirty. At the same time, in those regions where election campaigns are over-regulated, the public competition is minimum, the list of candidates is checked out and there isn’t any real struggle, people vote “against everyone” just because there is no real campaigning and they know nobody. In this sense regional elections in Moscow provide the best example. There was a substitute of election, a certain list agreed with the elite and there wasn’t any real struggle in the districts, so people understood that it was a slapstick and they did not have any motive to go to the polls: why should I go if there is “the Luzkov’s list” and everybody viewes these persons as already elected? Correspondingly, as a result of such an over-organization we observed in Moscow the following: firstly, light poll in elections to the Moscow Municipal Duma, secondly, a high percent of votes “against everyone” both in these elections and election of the raion assemblies counselors where all the candidates were checked out and there were just lists from the Mayor’s Office. Therefore it is not quite a right stereotype that “black PR” and negative campaigns raise voting “against everyone”. Yes, it is true but it is necessary to understand that over-organized campaigns raise it to an even larger degree. Certainly there are rural areas with patriarchal traditions where people got used to go to the polls year after year. But if we speak about cities and educated citizens, then over-organization and lack of choice are no less important factors of voting “against everyone” than dirty campaigning. It is beyond doubt that citizens in this country become less interested in elections on the whole. But it happens not because of the surplus of negative information but because elections most often are turning into a farce when everything is actually decided in advance. Voters understand very well whether anything depends on them or not.
It is necessary to look for “the golden middle”. For this it is essential to enable those who want to nominate themselves, to give a real alternative to different categories of citizens. The law should be providing any the significant and interesting political figure with the opportunity to run and should not allow any additional power filtration. It should be forbidden to artificially cut down the number of candidates and parties. It is simply necessary to make sure that requirements of the law are observed, that there is no falsified information, propagandistic counterfeits, libel.
“Black PR” is a purely publicist notion which most often implies whatever you consider right. When a counter-propagandistic article is published which somebody has not liked or some undesirable facts have been published, clamors about black PR and the necessity of taking some extra special measures against it appear. However, both the Constitution and the law give the right to campaign both for and against one or another candidate – it is not an abuse but a constitutional right of a citizen closely connected with the freedom of speech and other civil rights. Many specialists separate “negative campaigning” (in other words campaigning “against” somebody) from deliberate using illicit methods in the course of the campaign (fragrant libel, publication of false or anonymous propagandistic materials, etc). In the times of the total manipulation of the mass consciousness and claiming the desired as a reality, the negative campaigns are not just necessary but vitally essential as a critical analysis of programs and images of the candidates, this is sometimes the only way for the society to oppose the over-regulated and checked out elections. Moreover it is negative campaigning that enables to make a more deliberate, considered and conscious choice. As for illicit methods of campaigning, they are forbidden by law, the only problem is that sometimes they are intentionally allowed. Moreover, often enough the so-called “twin candidates” are deliberately nominated by “a victim” in order to attract additional attention and as a rule they are absent from ballots by the day of voting.
In order not to violate the requirements of the law, there should not be any libel nor falsification, so that if I say anything negative about something or somebody it is to be based on concrete facts and documents. If a newspaper runs an article that a candidate has stolen something and that is proved, then it is not “black PR” but publishing of the objective information. It is not necessary to lump everything together. Negative campaigning is necessary and strictly essential because otherwise we won’t get the objective information about one or another candidate. The society needs it, as well as the positive information. But still the primary factor of increasing protest electorate is an excessive – it gets worse and worse as it goes on – over-regulation of the election process. It is over-regulation that antagonizes the voters’ interest from the election and to a significant degree leads to the increase of the vote “against everyone”. It is essential to liberalize the law, to make the access of different candidates to elections easier. It doesn’t matter if there are even more candidates then necessary, but then those who otherwise wouldn’t come, will have a motive for going to the polls. And the policy currently being promoted by election legislation, the law “On Political Parties” and others – cutting down the number of political parties and candidates – leads in fact to no good. Such a policy deprives people of the choice that will lead to the fall of turnout, to the increase of voting “against everyone” and in the long run to the alienation of society from the power, because it is impossible on the one hand to narrow the political field and create additional turnpikes for those who want to stand for elections and on the other hand to expect heavy poll. Make a choice, either this or that, as people do not want to take part in a farce. They are very sensitive to substitutes and understand whether it is an election or a comedy. As soon as citizens begin to realize that it is a comedy and the candidates differ in no way from one another they won’t go to the polls. People should see that there is a choice and to this sense in my view they have far away overstepped over the last two years that limit behind which there are “as if” elections instead of real ones.
No doubt there is a special character of the protest electorate in regions. There are regions, for example Primorsky Krai, where strong protest vote takes place in all election regardless of any other factors. It has already to a certain sense become a regional tradition. There are regions where such vote was spontaneous. As a rule it was connected with the fact that certain specific figures were not admitted to the elections. For example, in the Far East protest vote happens very often on ocean-going ships when fishermen are devoid of the opportunity to follow the campaign and do not know the candidates. On the election day when a ballot-box is brought to them they often vote “against everyone” as they know nobody. For example, there was a big problem in Kamchatka where in one of the regions representatives to the Regional Council of People’s Deputies could not get elected as people on these ships who constituted a substantial part of the electorate voted against everyone. It is well known that in Yekaterinburg, for example, there is a stable high percentage of votes “against everyone” in Ordzhonikidzevsky raion where the Uralmash is situated, because the “Uralmash Organized Criminal Group” (OPG) is pretty strict about who will be representing “their” raion. If a person is not connected with this group then it is very difficult for him/her to campaign. And when the list of candidates has been cut down in such an artificial way people voted “against everyone” as it is impossible to make everybody to join the “Uralmash” OPG. It is possible to press on a candidate but not on every voter. There were a number of times when the elections in that electoral district were considered as “not to have taken place”. So there is a different motivation in each concrete case. On March 2 in Komi Republic there was the most massive case of voting “against everyone” in the European part of Russia when actually all over the region protest voting was at the 20% level in different cities. In my view it is a cumulative effect of a number of factors. First of all, it is a sudden deterioration of the social and economic situation in the region over the last year, disenchantment with the regional authorities: there is no working team, no well-defined policy, the new governor Torlopov has completely changed the government on the very eve of the elections. People showed that on the one hand they did not want to return to the previous governor’s times, and on the other hand that the new leader did not suit them either, as his actions evoke distrust. Probably, that was a certain tiredness of the same political figures who flashing in the region during the past ten years – all of them lost the elections. In my view the case of voting “against everyone” in Komi Republic is a clear demand for a renovation of the elite, for new political figures, new ideas, some new images. In addition the combined election (both the State Council and self-government institutions and mayors were elected on one and the same day) was a very substantial factor in Komi Republic, when many voters simply got confused. They directed their attention to a more interesting campaign, as a rule to the State Council and the election of a mayor, and voted “against everyone” on the rest of ballots considering them secondary. In federal elections there were usually 3-4% percent of protest votes. I think that in December this number will be much higher. I think if worst comes to worst, voting “against everyone” can even be the second highest. Which political forces can it threaten? Let’s see which niches are occupied and which are not. In my view, supporters of the left wing will vote for their candidates as they have always been. The majority of Putin’s 2000 voters is a very heterogeneous group. “Edinaya Rossiya”, which claims to be “the President’s party”, represents only a part of this majority, but the “nomenclature” part, those with high status. Many people voted for “Edinstvo” in due time for anti-elitist reasons. There was such a position that they were new people who called to establish order and citizens were ready to vote for a pure brand which “Edinstvo” was then for a pig in a poke, these boring parties not inspiring confidence. To a certain sense it was a protest vote. In other words it was a voting for Putin as a hope for the renovation of the elite. By the present moment the similar motivation of voting for "Edinstvo” is completely lost as today it is a purely nomenclatural organization. And at the same time among Putin’s supporters there are many of those who expected him to settle with oligarchs, to eliminate social disparities and so on, i.e. anticipated a fairer social state. These people have nobody to vote for now. They support the President, his actions but they will never vote for a party of nomenclature. They clearly understand that there is Putin and there is bureaucracy. In my view, to many people “Edinaya Rossiya” is a party of bureaucracy. But at the same time according to the arising election context there is practically nobody who it would be possible for them to vote for. They are either artificially cut off or do not have money and cannot formulate anything. People got tired of SPS, “Yabloko” and LDPR images but there is no new electoral suggestion as of now. Therefore for many people there is no choice except for voting “against everyone”. In my opinion, some percent of communist supporters will cut themselves off having disenchanted with numerous scandals. And the most important thing is that a considerable part of Center-Leftist, pro-presidential but anti-nomenclatural electorate will most likely turn out to be “ownerless”. So quite a number of those people will probably vote “against everyone”.
Ph.D. in political sciences,
expert of IESD and of International institute
for humanitarian-political studies.
Democracy.Ru: Kynev A., Diagnosis: Insufficiency in Parties