Arkady Liubarev: The vote has been postponed, but the problems remain

27 March 2020

By Arkady Liubarev, election expert

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Ekho Moskvy]

Voting on the non-referendum – Aleksandr Kynev invented this word – has been postponed indefinitely. Of course we would all like for this non-referendum and its amendments to just disappear, along with the coronavirus. But, by the looks of it, we can’t get out of it now. I don’t even see a legal means of getting out of it.

So the discussion will have to continue. But since we now have more time, we can discuss things much more calmly.

Andrei Buzin wrote an excellent article for Insider two days ago. My report was published yesterday on Golos’s site, and today my article is out in Medusa. All three of these publications are about the defects – small and large – of this non-referendum. Everything has been analyzed from every angle.

But here’s what perplexes me the most. Many people have been perceiving our criticism of the non-referendum as an argument for boycotting it. That’s incorrect. In one of my recent articles, I attempted to explain why. I’ll continue here; the situation demands it.

We write about how the rules of the non-referendum are such that they will not allow the true will of the people to be revealed. But we write almost the same thing about elections.

The President said that he wants to know the opinion of the people on the proposed amendments. But we get it: if he really wanted this, he would have done it all differently.

In the conditions under which the non-referendum will be carried out (regardless of the date of voting) there will be a large number of votes in favour of the changes from people who have been duped by large-scale propaganda. There will also be a considerable amount of ballot stuffing. Hence our conclusion: this will not reveal the will of all people.

But this is by no means a reason for those who are against the amendments to not try to express their informed viewpoints. They won’t have any other opportunity to do so.

There are generally two types of arguments against voting. The first one says that the people who do participate are legitimatizing the procedure. This argument is overused; people say it about elections, too.

It’s difficult to argue with Chimeras. If I were to reword Mayakovsky, I’d say, “The fairy tale of legitimization is intellectual garbage.”

Those who just want to flip off the government should think about this: turnout is far from the main indicator of legitimacy. And for the government, it’s far from the main goal. 

As far as the authorities are concerned, the result is always what matters most. When the presidential elections were held, the result that counted was who was elected leader – the number of votes cast for his rivals was irrelevant. The majority of these rivals were in any case loyal to the President, and so votes for them could not be construed as votes for the opposition. In the current campaign that the authorities are currently running, what counts most is that as many people as possible vote in favour of the amendments, and as few as possible vote against them. And so the authorities are keener than usual to maximise turnout by loyal voters and minimise turnout by disgruntled sections of the electorate.

The second type of arguments put forward in favour of staying away from the polls essentially relate to electoral fraud. It is possible and indeed necessary to engage with these arguments since they have a kernel of truth.

Some claim that the authorities are not following any rules at all for this vote, and so there’s no need to take part in it – but qualify this statement by saying that elections are a different matter.

This claim is not true, since the authorities are definitely following rules – imperfect rules and perhaps even egregious rules, but rules nevertheless. And although the rules governing elections are better – at least for the time being – they are still far from perfect.

And this is where the problem lies. I’ve only recently come to this conclusion, since I was previously more optimistic. But now I understand quite plainly that the rules governing elections will become less and less fair. Without wanting to be too much of a pessimist, there is a risk that in the none too distant future they will become very similar to the rules for the current nonreferendum.

What would happen if I were proved right? Would we refuse to vote in the elections as well? What would be left for us to do? Take part in approved meetings and demonstrations, even though the rules according to which they are approved are no better than the rules governing elections. Or take part in non-approved rallies and accept the inevitable run-ins with the law enforcement authorities and courts – bodies whose legitimacy is just as questionable as that of the electoral process.

I have not forgotten how Grigory Yavlinsky boycotted the presidential elections held in 2004. And as if that were not bad enough, he also told the members of his party not to vote in favour of any other candidates – and we all know how that turned out. Eight years have passed since then, the rules governing elections have not become any fairer and the elections themselves have not become any more legitimate, yet Grigory Alekseyevich has realised that boycotting elections is a bad idea after all. And he faces a significantly harder task after all this time.

Any argument that cites electoral fraud is ultimately a weak argument. If you do not go and cast your ballot, they may well do it for you; if you do go and cast your ballot, they might put it on the wrong pile. In the first instance, however, the probability of your vote being counted is zero, whereas in the second it is far from certain, but still higher than zero – and this probability increases the more that other like-minded people also go out and vote.

My last argument is for the fans of semantics among us. It is an odd fact that we are referred to as the electorate when it comes to elections, but “participants in the ballot” in the case of this vote (anyone who doesn’t believe me is welcome to trawl through the legislation and the Procedural Rules for Voting). The term “participants” covers both those who cast a vote and those who do not, so remember – even if you boycott the polls, you will still be a participant in them.

Translated by Nina dePalma and Joanne Reynolds

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