Vladimir Putin is still shaken by Alexei Navalny

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR POUTINE has every reason to be angry. He tried to poison Alexei Navalny, the leader of the Russian opposition. He locked him up in one of the toughest penal colonies in Russia. He banned his anti-corruption foundation. He drove his comrades out of the country and banned his allies from standing for election. And yet, after all this, Mr. Navalny and his movement are still at the heart of the elections to Russia’s Duma (his parliament) on September 19.

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Apparently, the political field is entirely that of Mr. Putin. The only parties allowed to run, including the Communists and Yabloko, an innocuous liberal formation, have been sanitized by the Kremlin. With the muzzled media and repression and censorship as the main campaign tools, the victory of United Russia backed by the Kremlin is obvious. Yet beneath the surface a drama unfolds, as the Kremlin frantically fights Mr Navalny’s efforts to wake up and coordinate voters

The Kremlin hopes that most Russians, assuming the election is inevitable, will not be interested. If they stay at home, United Russia should win hands down, as a strong bloc of state employees, retirees and members of the armed forces will be brought in to vote for her. If the turnout is low, the need for blatant rigging would be avoided, as well as the risk of mass protests.

At the same time, the Kremlin is urging people, especially in Moscow where United Russia is particularly weak, to vote online, making it easier for authorities to spy on them and control the process. He even appears to have hacked into the database of a liberal online media organization, sending his readers a message telling them to boycott the elections.

Yet Mr. Navalny’s campaign to stoke and consolidate a protest vote, from his prison cell, is hurting Mr. Putin. Pollsters give United Russia less than 30% of the vote. The Kremlin is particularly shaken by Mr. Navalny’s call to follow his “smart vote” strategy. Half of the Duma’s seats are allocated by party list, so the opposition leader calls on his supporters to vote for any parliamentary party other than United Russia, to push them back.

The other half of the seats is first past the post, so here the smart voting team, using their own poll data and analysis, has endorsed the candidate most likely to beat United Russia, regardless of who. or his point of view. Its main objective is to deprive United Russia of a large majority and thereby weaken its control over election commissions throughout Russia. This would give the opposition more leeway in places where it is relatively strong, such as Khabarovsk in the Far East. Smart voting has worked in various local elections, most notably in Moscow in 2019, when United Russia did not fare well.

The Russian Internet censor duly blocked the smart voting website and ordered Google and Yandex, Russia’s leading search engine, to block the two-word combination – smart vote – in its searches. Yandex obeyed but Google did not, facing a fine. The Kremlin accused him of “interfering in the elections in Russia”.

Anticipating such blockages, the Navalny team created a smart voting app. The internet censor has ordered tech giants, including Apple, to remove it from their stores. He even ordered VPN and website security providers to prevent downloads, apparently with little success.

Journalists are arrested for reposting smart voting mentions on their social media accounts. Human rights lawyers are targeted. Popular bloggers face house arrest for breaking covid rules that hardly anyone follows. There’s also Soviet-style bullying offline. Hundreds of people across Russia have reported visits by plainclothes police asking questions about Mr Navalny and warning of dire consequences if they supported him.

Kirill Rogov, a political analyst, claims that smart voting has in fact become a political party. “It is not the name or the inscription that defines a party, but its ability to bring together voters and influence the outcome of elections,” he said. The power of the Kremlin rests on two pillars: its monopoly of information and the threat of repression. But the spread of rapid mobile internet has changed Russian politics. The Foundation for Liberal Mission, a Moscow-based think tank, estimates that the share of people who get their news online has risen from 18% to 45% over the past five years. Thus, 70% of Russians know Mr. Navalny. His YouTube channel has about as much audience as the news on a major state channel. TV channel. Whatever the outcome of the elections, the war on the Internet will only get worse.

This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline “Voters get smarter”

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