With the Russian parliamentary campaign in full swing, what type of politicians are voters supporting? For now, it appears that Russian voters are backing centrist candidates capable of enacting slow, gradual change.


Election campaign printed materials of candidates for mayor of Novosibirsk, Russia. Photo: RIA Novosti

Ahead of this fall’s parliamentary elections, pollsters surveyed everyday Russians to see which types of candidates they prefer. Not surprisingly, voters are primarily looking for someone to represent their interests as opposed to candidates perceived as being driven by self-interest. 

In general, Russians prefer officials capable of enacting gradual changes, not mavericks implementing breakthrough changes. Since Russians do not like to attend public gatherings, rallies with potential voters on the campaign trail are not as important as in Western-style democracies.

What should an ideal politician look like? 

The All-Russia Public Opinion Research Center (VCIOM) polls show that the public is interested in representatives capable of moderate change. Russians want campaign posters to feature new people with administrative experience and the potential to implement realistic solutions. 

The poll established three popular types of potential deputies for the State Duma: 

(1) "A trustworthy intermediary" between the population and the authorities capable of communicating people's problems and offering solutions;

(2) "A controller" who can keep officials in check and ensure the implementation of approved solutions;

(3) "A defender of the common people" to protect them from officials and lawlessness.

In contrast, current Duma deputies are perceived as theoreticians who know nothing of the harsh reality outside their luxury dwellings.

Igor Bunin, the general director of the Center for Political Technologies, explained that this study was primarily relevant due to the return of the single-seat constituency system. That is a major change from the past 12 years, when officials were elected by party lists only. In today’s new environment, political campaigners need to adopt a creative approach. 

"After a long break, the single-seat constituency system has been restored, and everyone seemed to recall that it is a more complex procedure than winning on the party ticket. People will cast votes based on a number of factors, including ideology and usefulness," Bunin says. 

For example, voters loyal to United Russia (the ruling party) favor paternalism and support pro-government candidates. 

"Candidates that are affiliated with the authorities enjoy the most popularity. They account for up to one-half of all votes nationwide, but in Moscow, democrats get 15-20 percent of the votes because here the electorate denounces authoritarianism and supports the opposition," the expert points out.

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The ability to get things done as a political attribute 

One of the most important factors is the ability to get things done. Based on the survey results, sociologists strongly agree.

"How can candidates help the people in their constituency? What issues can they resolve? Build a school or a new bridge? Under these circumstances, personal and local problems come to the fore, so it is critical that a candidate have a relationship with the authorities, otherwise nothing can be accomplished. That is the kind of person voters are looking for: someone who can help them, and that is true for any constituency and city, " Bunin states. 

Mikhail Vinogradov, the president of the St. Petersburg Politics Foundation, agrees, 

"Now the demand for a regular person who can build rapport with the authorities is extremely high. Alternatively, voters are looking for someone who has leverage against the official establishment, but simultaneously does not irritate the electorate by an exuberant lifestyle. It is also important that a candidate combine work on federal issues with solving local problems, and there are few who can achieve that."

Leonid Polyakov, the head of the Department of General Politics at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, is of a different opinion. He believes that prospective deputies have to prove their ability to get things done.

"A candidate needs to know how to communicate, project positivity at the national level, and persuade the public that he or she can overcome current difficulties. In my opinion, the main factors include social skills, a solid message and well-grounded optimism. These components go to the core of public demand. Everyone wants to see candidates who can introduce their ideas and support them. It is important not only to provide an uplifting message, but also to present a sensible, positive and realistic agenda." 

Thus, future legislators have to communicate what they want to accomplish and how it can be done.

Humanists in demand

As to the preferred background of a political candidate, it would be helpful to be a famous physician or teacher, at least in comparison with other professions. 

"In this case, it is important that a candidate be a humanist by default. Another popular choice would be a self-made person, but his or her career should be free of corruption scandals or allegations of criminal ties," Bunin adds.

Being a media personality would also have a major impact on voter choices. 

"Moreover, voters like TV personalities. Knowing someone personally is not that crucial. It is a significant, but not deciding factor. It is a bonus," the expert adds. 

However, at the upcoming election, Russians are not likely to vote for entertainers or sports stars. The public does not see them as able administrators, according to the VCIOM findings.

Vinogradov agrees that it is not necessary to hold meetings or rallies on the campaign trail for someone who is already in the public eye.  

"Russian voters do not need to know a candidate personally. The country lacks horizontal communication, and people forget for whom they voted anyway. In Russia, there is no custom of interacting with or even greeting one's neighbors, so a candidate is seen more like a boss who doesn’t irritate you," he emphasizes. 

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Vinogradov believes that meetings will become more efficient if people start telling each other what they saw.  

"But Russia has yet another peculiarity: here weak people attend public gatherings or tenant meetings, so ultimately the victory goes to the most recognizable candidate with a massive TV presence or a hyperactive election campaign."

Often people working in the humanities occupy top spots on party lists. 

"Next to a top government official you will find a woman working in the humanities; best of all, if she is a doctor or teacher, and then another physician or pedagogue. That is how the top three are selected. No one cares who comes later on the list," Bunin explains. 

If a party is getting revamped, it tries to put a lot of new people on the list. That is what the democrats are doing right now.

Centrists are more important than fringe candidates

Currently, the world, with the exception of the U.S., is exhibiting a general tendency where the electorate from both right and left is drifting towards the center, according to Polyakov.
"Marginals here are pushed out, and the centrist bloc is very strong. Trump demonstrates that the establishment can be attacked from the outside, but that does not apply to Russia, where the dominant voter relies on common sense and tends to support those who are closer to the center," the expert emphasizes.