Posted 8 февраля, 06:39

Published 8 февраля, 06:39

Modified 8 февраля, 06:57

Updated 8 февраля, 06:57

Democracy is not worthy: why direct elections of mayors are canceled in Russian cities

Democracy is not worthy: why direct elections of mayors are canceled in Russian cities

8 февраля 2023, 06:39
In Russia, only six major cities retain direct mayoral elections. But very soon Novosibirsk may lose this privilege. Novye Izvestia found out why the elections are being canceled and what the rest of the "islands of democracy" are preparing for.

Novosibirsk is actively discussing the initiative to cancel direct elections of the head of the city. The corresponding draft has already been submitted to the legislative Assembly of the region and has been approved by the Public Chamber.

Novosibirsk is one of the few regional centers that have retained this form of mayoral elections. In the vast majority of municipalities, the heads are also elected, but by deputies from among those who will apply for the competition and pass the selection. The legislation is set up in such a way that only those who are allowed by the regional government can pass the selection. Therefore, more often this scheme is called "assignment".

As arguments for the cancellation of the elections, the initiators call a drop in the interest of citizens in the elections. Since 2009, the turnout in the elections has fallen from 50% to 20%. In addition, the campaign is expensive, and now there are more important areas where this money will be useful. At the same time, Novosibirsk has always been a city with a bright and controversial political agenda. Often the city came into confrontation with the region.

The former governor of the Novosibirsk region, now Senator Vladimir Gorodetsky, in an interview with a correspondent of Novye Izvestia, noted that the initiative has nothing to do with the personalities of the current leaders. A tougher management system for the capital of Siberia is dictated by a difficult time.

"In the conditions in which we are, controllability is required along the line of all branches of government," Gorodetsky said, "concentration around the vertical and the governor is needed. I once worked as a mayor, went through three election campaigns, and I thought it was important to be elected and be trusted. But a lot has changed in the last 10 years. For example, interest in municipal elections has fallen by more than 2 times. I think now the model without direct elections is more correct, since a manager will come who will ensure continuity in the development of the city. In addition, the participation of citizens is ensured through deputies. It's not about personalities, it's not about the fact that the current mayor is bad, and we need to find ways to remove him, it's about the perspective and sustainability of the system."

Viktor Tolokonsky, another former governor of the Novosibirsk Region, disagrees with his colleague in absentia.

"I have always stressed the importance of direct elections, especially at the municipal level," he told Novye Izvestia, "citizens' trust is given, in my opinion, an incomparable responsibility. This gives the mayor of the city the necessary freedom to make a decision, and not to follow someone's advice and instructions. I thought that this was an obvious advantage that should be cherished and cherished, while the arguments that city managers have been tested showed the advantages of the system, there are big doubts that this is so. I worked as an appointed mayor and was the first elected mayor of Novosibirsk, there is something to compare with. An elected mayor will always, other things being equal, be more effective than an appointed one."

This is not the first attempt to rid Novosibirsk of the need to choose a mayor through direct elections. In 2018, almost all municipalities in the region lost this function. Then the region was headed by United Russia Andrey Travnikov. The media wrote about a gentleman's agreement with the communist mayor Anatoly Lokt. The city is left with elections, and the Elbow does not prevent the governor from being elected. Now the electoral cycle is approaching the elections again, and the topic of municipal reform has become interesting again.

Svetlana Kaverzina, an independent deputy of the Novosibirsk City Council, notes that residents have the opportunity to influence the decision-making process on elections if they write to their deputies of the legislative assembly. But if the decision is made at the level of United Russia, which has a majority in the regional parliament, then the elections will really be canceled.

"Local self-government is horizontal communication, when there is an election campaign, candidates get to know people, understand how the city lives," the deputy says, "this is not a theory, but communication with people. Sometimes it may turn out that the candidate and the voters have different understanding of the city. People listen to candidates, check them for stress resistance, get used to each other. People perceive the winner as their own. This is not someone who was put on top, and the person we voted for. There is a responsibility for choosing this particular person. These horizontal connections are very important. And if appointed from above, people are alienated from the city manager, they do not perceive their own. We constantly scold the current mayor, but we elected him. I didn't vote for him, but I know that the majority voted for him. And anyway, I understand that it is legitimate. They say "turnout is falling." Perhaps. But why are 20% of active citizens who go to the polls left without the opportunity to influence the mayor?"

The rest of you get ready?

Direct elections of the mayor are now preserved only in six cities – the centers of the subjects. These are Khabarovsk, Yakutsk, Abakan (Khakassia), Novosibirsk, Anadyr (Chukotka Autonomous Okrug) and Ulan-Ude (Buryatia). Not so long ago, Tomsk fell out of this cage, where local deputies agreed with the recommendation of the regional authorities and switched to the appointment of heads.

If the decision in Novosibirsk passes, then such "islands of democracy" can literally be counted on the fingers of one hand. According to media reports, the discussion about the rejection of direct elections is not only in the capital of Siberia. At the end of last year, a number of federal publications reported that the cities were instructed to study the situation again. Khabarovsk stands out especially in this row, which is considered a difficult territory after protests in defense of the arrested ex-governor Furgal. It is not easy for the new head of the region Degtyarev, and a loyal mayor of the regional capital would be a good support for him. But here everything rests on the initially difficult political situation. The governor represents the LDPR, the same party has a majority in the regional parliament. But the mayor of Khabarovsk is a United Russia, and the city assembly is completely split into three parts.

Would it be better without elections?

Many large cities have passed along the way of Novosibirsk in recent years. For example, in Yekaterinburg, which was known for the fierce confrontation between the city and the region, regardless of the names of governors and mayors, direct elections were canceled about five years ago.

"From the point of view of the life of the city, nothing has changed," the Yekaterinburg journalist admitted, "along with the cancellation of direct elections, we also removed the two-headed system "head of the city - city manager", a single "strong mayor" appeared, formally appointed by the Duma, but actually agreed by the governor. This situation has arisen in city politics for the first time in 25 years. The only plus is that due to the absence of an eternal war between the governor and the mayor of Yekaterinburg, the city receives more money from the regional budget"

Deputy of the Yekaterinburg City Duma Konstantin Kiselyov notes that the years of political confrontation between the authorities of Yekaterinburg and the Sverdlovsk region were also years of development of both opponents and competition only helped in this.

"And why was this competition bad? Both the region and the city, when there was competition and a pick, developed due to this, - says the interlocutor of Novye Izvestia, - everyone understood that in the end it was a pick of interests, where to allocate money, who would better reach the federal government. The ability to negotiate and see the strategy is very important. I am a consistent supporter of direct elections, - says the interlocutor of Novye Izvestia, - there are rare exceptions when it is difficult to find a person who will be adequate and professional in small municipalities. But big cities are only direct elections. There is a simple thing, where there are elections, there is responsibility. Otherwise, there is a responsibility to the one who appoints you. In my opinion, there are simply no arguments against direct elections. They say that our voters are stupid and can choose the wrong person. But this is an insult. Our people are much smarter and civil society is ready to make the right choice."

The deputy notes that in addition to the format of elections, local self-government has other problems, namely the tax system, which takes most of the money from the municipality.

"Mayors are simply not given the opportunity to prove themselves, the budget is set up so that money goes up, if a smart but uncontrolled mayor comes, he is simply deprived of money. The mayor should be a beggar for the region, and the governor should be a beggar for the federation," says Konstantin Kiselyov.

Chelyabinsk has been following the path of a monolithic vertical for more than 10 years and has also experienced a confrontation between the capital of the region and the regional government. But for more than 10 years, certain statistics have accumulated. During this time, four mayors were replaced, two turned out to be involved in criminal cases (one sat down, the other escaped punishment). Another head spent only six months in office, and after his resignation it turned out that he was elected-appointed on the basis of a document that did not comply with the law. Now Chelyabinsk is governed by the fourth mayor.

Ex-deputy of the council of one of the districts of Chelyabinsk, political strategist Dmitry Dovbnya notes that neither direct elections nor appointment are the best option.

"There are no ideal systems, direct elections in the modern context did not give an opportunity to become a candidate and get out, even if a decent person, but not having the support of clans, influence groups, enterprises, etc. But the appointment is also bad, because this system works for the current governor and the party he represents. I found both Soviet times and the 90s. And now I come to the conclusion that with all the shortcomings of the Soviet system, when officials were raised and they passed through the entire chain from the ordinary worker, through the level of the enterprise, city, district, region, through the Komsomol, the party. A person at each stage saw the processes from the inside, there were both horizontal and vertical connections."

Dmitry Dovzhenko, the former chairman of the Finance and Taxes Committee of the Chelyabinsk City Duma, notes some slyness regarding the fact that deputies, when choosing the mayor, represent citizens:

"In this process, deputies are presented as electors who represent different districts of the city, but in fact, the decision is made at the level of the party leadership, and then party discipline works," says the ex-deputy, "in my opinion, with direct elections, mayors have more subjectivity, both politically and financially. And in the case of the appointment, the person of the mayor of the city does not actually play a role, it is a technical character under the governor.Political strategist Alexey Mogilyansky believes that the quality of management of a large city does not depend on the system by which the mayor was elected."It depends on three criteria: the professionalism of the team, established relations with local elites, the ability and ability to receive subsidies and enter regional and federal programs," the expert says, "in this regard, the affiliation of the ruling actors to the management system is important.

And how they implement their governance - through the direct election of their protege or from among the deputies - is not the essence of it. But, the strongest side of direct elections of the mayor is the legitimization of power. And this strength for a long time, in my opinion, outweighs all the obvious advantages of the indirect system. In our country, the tendency to separate the people from the government has been developing for a long time - and this is a very bad trend. In this regard, any direct elections are still the complicity of citizens in the process, albeit with reservations about the decline in confidence in the institution of elections among a part of the population.

At the same time, no matter how much they talk about the apolitical nature of Russians and the long-term unwillingness to go to the polls, the topic of direct participation in local government is important for people.

"As a practicing political strategist, I am constantly faced with the request of voters for a direct election system: "This is our mayor, we elected him." Collegial bodies, such as city councils or assemblies, on the contrary, are always depersonalized. Simply put, everyone knows the mayor, especially the elected one, and few people know their deputies or some city manager," says Alexey Mogilyansky. - On the other hand, it is also not worth overestimating this request, since it is included in the category of socially approved responses. It's like with the turnout at the elections: everyone is going to vote and they think it's necessary, but in the end it's good if half of the voters come."It should be noted that Novosibirsk will make its decision on the mayoral elections in the coming weeks. The bill will be considered at the relevant commission of the Legislative Assembly on February 14.