Editorial: City elections in Irkutsk

Posted: October 11, 2009 in Иркутск
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An editorial essay in which I’ll attempt to coalesce some of my experiences and local hear-say, into a general perception of city politics here for those back home.

IRKUTSK, Russia. Residents of more than twenty municipalities and districts of Priangarsk in Eastern Siberia will take part in city and regional elections today, Sunday, October 11. In the city of Irkutsk, where more than 200 candidates are vying for the 35 city duma seats up for grabs, the polls are open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

The preparations leading up to the elections have gone smoothly in Irkutsk, excepting a few cases of attempted buying of votes, as the local news reported on Friday night.

Various campaign posters were visible from the first week of September when I arrived in Irkutsk. That said, they included but the ubiquitous poster of the whole United Russia party of President V.I. Putin, bearing its slogan of “Development and Order.” Perhaps two more versions of posters for specific candidates, both of whom were also United Russia, were also visible.

Over the last few days, however, other candidates’ names in the Russian white, blue, and red have made their way onto storefronts and bus windows.

While it seems that the city and local television stations aren’t displaying much of the pre-election fever, which filled  the majority of my first year and a half in college, luckily, I’ve had a bit of an inside glimpse into the politics and relative “excitement” of Irkutsk politics. My host mother, Tatyana Eduardovna, works as an assistant to Y. Khonkhalaev. He’s the deputy (representative) of District 21 (the neighboring district to the 22nd, where we live), and today, he is up for reelection. Her daughter, Masha, has also been helping with the reelection effort.

Having worked some late nights this past week leading up to today, the mother-daughter team has been coming home with both interesting stories for dinnertime, and a stack of paperwork and surveys for later, which Masha enters into the campaign’s digital records.

Masha has spent the past few weeks canvassing the neighborhood distributing surveys, and then returning to collect them, about residents’ satisfaction with the incumbent deputy, Khonkholaev. Tatyana has continued her work as usual, corresponding with key constituents, businesses, communities allies, and the deputy’s opponents, too, though the sheer volume of phone calls and papers has noticeably increased over the last week.

Russian democracy on the city level, grassroots not visible
Since a literal translation of “deputat” of the “gorodskaya duma” will give you “deputy of the city Congress,” at the beginning of last week, I was still next to clueless with respect to the roles of the city duma and its representatives/deputies. Masha shared her experience, which helped explain.

“For one, if a pensioner, say, has been having trouble getting reimbursed for medical treatment, he’ll go to the deputy to file for it. Or, if someone needs their water or heat shut on or off for whatever reasons, or is having issues with their payments and so on, they’ll also come to the office, where we, that is, my mom and I will file the paperwork for the complaint. The process goes on from there. . .”.

Residents also petition the deputy for better roads and sidewalks, better drainage, more streetlights, better public transportation, and solutions to neighborly disputes. “People will come and complain, ‘So-and-so constantly plays their music too loud,’ and that person will come back and complain about (oh, I don’t know!) how the light from the first person’s house shines in their window.” Masha pauses, then goes on, “And then their neighbor from next door shows up and says that the new light is bothering him!” She laughs, then rolls her eyes with a sigh, indicating that the list goes on.

It seems, though, the interest of residents in neighborhood improvements seems to stop there.

Proactively responding to a given disturbance to their lives or property with such petitioning is common, but pushes for lasting changes, I’ve noted, are in short supply on the local news. I asked about how often residents took preemptive initiative to prevent problems in the future, for instance, petition for zoning ordinances to stem the construction of noisy and unattractive parking lots near housing areas, an example issue from the local news the other night.

She shakes her head no, and to me it’s unclear whether it’s the political motivation, the belief in the efficacy of such action, or the pure notion of such legislation that simply is not present.

One of their particularly conservative-reactionary friends comes over on Monday nights to have tea and end up in loving, but heated arguments with Masha and Tatyana. When discussion comes to matters of fact or personal knowledge, she usually cites her 35 years working in the city administration as proof of her correctness, proceeding to conclude things were indisputably better during the U.S.S.R.

Their friend attributes the inefficacy and inefficiency of Russia’s current government systems to a “directionless” void in government in comparison to the fabled “Plans” of the Soviet years that are no more.

In any case, it seems that political action on the level of the city district, an entity that now reminds me of a homeowners association of the U.S. with more jurisdiction, happens most often but in reaction to incidental problems–both large and small–, but stops short there. Initiative for long-term preventative measures or legislation via an American conception of grassroots referendum is virtually unheard-of.

Not ‘without alternative,’ but few expectations for surprises
The political dialogue between representative and constituent is literally a “give-and-take” one, as in most political systems. Constituents present their appeals to their representative as Masha described, and candidates decide where to whom and to where their resources are meted out. A candidate’s record in delivering satisfactory responses to constituents’ pleas becomes all the more influential in determining that candidate’s chances for gathering votes.

Given the generally positive responses to Masha’s survey on Khonkhalaev’s performance, it is not surprising, then, that District 21 is not expecting a change in the name of their acting officer in the city duma. Though, the area is far from problem-free.

“People do wish that things would be better,” Masha admits, drawing a conclusion from her work so far.

“Then why not vote for someone else, who might act for more positive change?” I ask, immediately recognizing my the still-strong influence of the Obama victory last November over my political psyche.

“Well, in the end, when people are there voting, they see the surname of the person they know, Khonkholaev, and they know that he’ll do what he can to help in the future, like in the past,” she answers, acknowledging the good work that the deputy has already done.

Voting statistics are another factor, which tend to favor deputy incumbents. Shockingly low turnout rates are common, ranging from lower than 10% to around 20% of eligible voters. Most of these, Tatyana Eduardovna tells, are pensioners.

To counter an ailing federal retirement funding system, weakened even more by the crisis, city deputies are able to help the elderly in some measure, gaining helpful political leverage against their opponents among the largest group of election participants.

Although three additional candidates will appear on the ballot along side Khokholaev, entrance into the ring of serious competition proved difficult this year in District 21. One of the young candidates bowed out early, in exchange for support from the incumbent later on. One of the three remaining opponents, in the opinion of Tatyana and others, discredited himself with what she described as the equivalent of mudslinging, this after incumbent Khokholaev asked that it be a “clean fight” through the election season. The faults of the other two candidates in the Russian political eye seem to be youth and womanhood.

The opponents have fought their fight well, however: despite gloomy prospects, Tatyana gauges, “They will, nonetheless, receive votes.” To the point of validating such votes, she described a handful of situations where she and her work have played a role in the jockey between candidates for fundraising and claiming campaign territory. However, in all these instances, it was her boss who won out.

I can estimate neither the chances the opponents had in winning any of these political jostles, nor the objective value of any of the candidates’ potential. Yet, despite my general lack of acquaintance with, and even lack of comfort with elections void of the All-American two-person struggle to break the 50/50, Red-Blue tie, I have to conclude that today’s voting does not categorically merit the badge of the Russian word “bezal’ternativnii,” or “without alternative,” which the dubious of the Russian Federation’s true democratic nature might be quick to apply.

At the same time, I am still searching here in Russia for the signs and evidence of a middle class, of heatedly debated issues, of any general political interest, shortly, of a democracy more reminiscent of what I know in America. Some say, and perhaps with good reason, that the objects of my search simply have a different value in a socialist system, that something’s lost in the Russo-American translation, or currency exchange, perhaps, of such principles. And so, I don’t conclude, “Corruption! Scam! Bezal’ternativnii!” so easily.

But, I keep my suspicions and unanswered questions out in front of me.

Having taken part in an intern-mentor program with the city manager, Mark Pentz, of my hometown Chandler, Ariz., and otherwise having a general sense of city-level politics in America, I know that it’s not necessarily the typical arena in which world-changing legislation or sweeping conclusions about national political disposition are made.

On the same token, if I at all believe in my training in the theories and histories of the Greek polis (which, as a matter of fact, I do), then I think it’s a fair place to start.

So, based on my expectations of politics including sex scandals and unexpected betrayals like those included in Thucydides’s History and in just about any other political history book, and drawing on a bit of my modernistic suspicion in the twenty-first century unpredictability of anything, from quantum physics to philosophy, I say, the rather unremarkable, nerve-less eve of election day, which I spent with Tatyana and Masha last night, coupled with the surprise-less results we’re promised on Monday morning, all seem to point to the suggestion that this polis, Irkutsk, at least, is either missing out on an opportunity for some high-adrenaline democracy afforded it by its constitution, or then, alternatively, that its constitution might not be affording it enough surprise.

. . .
Information gathered from
http://www.irk.ru/news/20091009/vote/ (also on this page, interesting commentary from local users), Irkutsk local news on STS (ctc-tv.ru), and personal interviews conducted by the author.

  1. Casey says:

    Update 12.30 p.m.: Looks like notably more posters, banners, and billboards have gone up within the last 24 hours, including a bunch from Kokalaev’s top opponent, Schamelov (the young guy). We’ll see.

    Also, I had the United Russia slogan mixed up: it’s “Order and Development,” not the other way around.

  2. Casey says:

    Update 11.30 p.m.: No results from the TsIK (Central Elections Committee, counting the votes from Moscow for the first time in Irkutsk history) broadcast on TV or internet news yet.

    The host family hasn’t come back yet either, apparently enjoying the waiting-for-the-results party.

  3. Casey says:

    Update 1:20 a.m.: The pair returns home from the party, not declaring, but celebrating a victory. Tatyana Eduardovna says, “Not as many people as we had hoped turned out to vote, but we won, which is the important part.

    Update 10:20 a.m., the next day: Tatyana Eduardovna receives the call: it’s official, victory! Congrats!

  4. […] — the city duma elections last fall were equally unexciting, […]

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