Running for Office in Siberia: Becoming an Official Independent Candidate
Part III in a series on the District #35 Election for Novosibirsk City Council
Primary, as in an election during which a political party allows the public to choose who should represent them in a general election, has joined computer, facilitator, Internet and volunteerism in the Russian lexicon of imported words with zero attempt at indigenization. The newness of the word and its obscure meaning to the Russian people is reflected in the minimal turnout in the two party primaries that took place in Novosibirsk this year. One of them, conducted by the “Democratic Coalition”, only targeted the regional legislative body election. The Coalition, consisting of five opposition parties, one movement and one public organization, has two leaders. The first is Alexei Navalny who became famous for his anti-corruption work and assigning the party in power, United Russia, the name “party of crooks and thieves”. The second Coalition leader is Mikhail Kasyanov who was a Prime Minister during Putin’s first Presidential term and whose government service prior to that earned him the nickname Mischa 2%, for his alleged cut on any deal.
The purpose of the primary was to identify candidates who will represent the RPR Parnas party on the ballot. The almost impossible to brand or remember name of this party was born of a union between the Republican Party of Russia and the People’s Freedom Party. Their Primary model included on-line, in person voting and allowing voters to support more than one person. This approach may explain the absence of clarity in turnout results. According to the Coalition’s official site, 2653 people participated. Several other sources, including Navalny’s site, said 1104 people voted or .046% of eligible voters. In all counts, three of the 15 candidates collected over 500 votes and were declared the winners.
Natalia Pinus decided to take part in the other primary, the “People’s Primary”, in response to a request from the Alumni Association of Novosibirsk State University. This was the second time United Russia (party in power) conducted a primary in Novosibirsk although it was of greater significance than 2009 because of the unexpected election of a Communist in the 2014 Mayoral election. Like Natalia, most people considered her decision to run for office a logical next step for a community activist. Running for United Russia was a surprise because despite her high profile as an activist, Natalia was not considered political. She explained it this way, “I wanted some experience in the campaign process and the Primary gives me a chance to understand how it works and to see if this is something I can do.” Natalia was one of 11 candidates in the District #35 United Russia Primary.
Most of the public resistance or lack of enthusiasm for this process was because they did not understand what a primary is. United Russia hung big banners with the date but did nothing to inform people why it was in their interest to show up. The “Democratic Coalition” site included this in their FAQ. The party in power made no effort to explain they were opening up the process and allowing citizens to decide who they wanted to represent them. With not much more than a week for her campaign and a tiny budget, Natalia did not have time to educate the electorate beyond a few posters and leaflets posted on apartment buildings with her picture. She also actively promoted herself on Facebook and through contacts developed as Director of the Akademgorodok Community Development Foundation.
On Primary Day Natalia and some of her supporters were surprised to see her photo missing on the candidate poster at the polling place. She had submitted it along with all other required documentation and received confirmation of its receipt and yet it was one of the four out of 11 candidate pictures missing in several locations.
The head of the Commission reported that many people came and assumed the candidates without photos had withdrawn from the race. Natalia took it in stride, “People have asked me why I am participating? Well, to find out and to understand this thing from my own experience before the real battle”. Whether incompetence or strategic maneuver by more “powerful” forces in the candidate field, Natalia’s grassroots approach proved stronger and she won. Voter turnout in District #35 was tiny, 724 out of an overall 27,000, but she won decisively with 65 votes more than her nearest competitor. Turnout in the Region was higher with 243,000, or 11.4% of eligible voters, participating.
Her initial reaction posted on Facebook was, “My friends, our actions were victorious, in spite of everything, and still, Hurrah! Now it remains to understand what to do with this happiness.” The next day she talked about her victory in a local TV interview and announced that she had two days to decide “what to do with this happiness” meaning whether she would run for United Russia or declare herself as an Independent candidate. The only practical difference was she would have to collect signatures from .5% of the District population (136 people) to run as an Independent. Her Primary experience garnering 204 votes indicated this should not be a problem.
Three days after the Primary Natalia met with the General Secretary of the United Russia Party and told him she decided to go Independent. He took the news calmly and respectfully while reminding her about the required signatures. In a newspaper interview she admitted being approached by almost all parties, (LDPR the key exception) and explained her decision, “Party labels do not always correspond to the principles stated in their documents. I am not ready to represent the interests of any particular political power but I am open to cooperate on concrete projects.” On Facebook she put it more succinctly, “I am running as an Independent candidate because it reflects my true inner feelings.”
The United Russia representative may have known something Natalia did not know when he reminded her about the signatures, it turns out even 136 are a challenge. That is the required number but history has shown that when the election commission verifies signatures there are often problems. If more than 10% of your signatures are rejected, your campaign is over. The rule is collect more as insurance against disqualification. Yabloko, the most famous liberal party, and most other potential candidates took the traditional path going door to door. On July 7 Natalia formally launched her campaign on Facebook saying “I have already made clear my campaign will not be typical in many ways. One of those is we decided not to collect signatures the way it is usually done knocking on apartment doors. I don’t think it is acceptable to disturb people in their homes. Therefore, I invite you to come spend a few moments in one of three local cafes, I will be happy to share a cup of coffee.” She listed time, date and place for the next three evenings along with instructions concerning signature requirements. Later she explained that she felt it was important that her campaign represent how she would serve on the City Council. The key principles being openness, accessible and ready to listen.
Reality set in when they collected only 25 signatures the first evening.
The signature gathering saga would continue for 10 days and was well documented on Facebook. Each post featured pictures of signees, number of signatures left and information about the next location. After a few days, to increase visibility, she moved to the street in front of the shopping center.
She ended up beating the deadline by a couple of days and submitted 147 signatures to the Election Commission.
Natalia and her team had great confidence in the signatures authenticity because the whole process was conducted in public, she had personally met with each supporter, had qualified volunteers checking the documents and the entire list was then reviewed by a lawyer.
Still, seven signatures were disqualified because the passport numbers did not match the ones listed in the Election Commission database. Natalia, mystified that the professionals who helped her would have made so many careless mistakes, believed the more likely explanation was the Commission data is incorrect. She still had the required number and the Commission authorized her as an official Independent candidate for the September 13 City Council Election.
The other Primary party winners from RPR Parnas will not be running in the general regional election. They submitted 11,700 of “the most perfect signatures from the 17,500 collected” according to Coalition leader Alexei Navalny. The required number for people running at the regional level was 10,657. The Election Commission rejected 1,513 leaving them 470 short. While Natalia was launching and conducting her grassroots campaign for the District #35 City Council seat, the Democratic Coalition launched a hunger strike during appeal and rejection by the Novosibirsk and then Moscow Central Election Commissions. The hunger strike was called off and a public meeting “For Honest Elections” held on August 11. A Moscow political operative did most of the talking announcing the official end of the campaign for the Democratic Coalition in Novosibirsk, answering questions and inviting participants to send protest letters to the regional Election Commission. According to the Facebook page, and supported by the You Tube video, approximately 350 people attended.
Next week, Part IV of this series, Natalia Pinus’s “I Love Gorodok” general election campaign.