Extra votes to signal loyalty: regional political cycles and national elections in Russia


Under the system of presidential appointments of regional governors, which existed in Russia from 2005 to 2012, gubernatorial loyalty to the central government and particularly governors’ ability to deliver satisfactory results to the ruling party in national-level elections were crucial to their likelihood of being reappointed to the next term. In this paper, we argue that governors, anticipating the relationship between loyalty and reappointments, attempted to deliver additional votes to the ruling party, and show that those attempts were subject to regional political cycles. Exploiting variation in the starting and expiry dates of Russian regional governors’ terms of office, we find that the winning margins for a pro-government party across Russian regions in national-level elections held between 2007 and 2012 were substantially higher when elections were closer to the beginning or to the expiration of a regional governor’s term. The effect is driven almost exclusively by the governors serving their first terms. However, for elections held between 1999 and 2004, when governors were subject to direct votes by regional constituencies, no similar effect is found. The results can be explained by, e.g., first impression and recency biases in appointment decisions. We then implement several exercises to identify the sources of the additional votes for the ruling party and demonstrate that governors, while unlikely committing electoral fraud, likely exerted effort to stimulate turnout among ruling party supporters.

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  1. 1.

    For a comprehensive review of the literature on politicians’ behavior driven by political cycles see, e.g., De Haan and Klomp (2013).

  2. 2.

    Throughout this paper, when using the term “ruling party” we refer to the United Russia (“Yedinaya Rossiya”) party in the case of parliamentary elections, and to the incumbent president or a candidate supported by him in the case of presidential elections, i.e., Vladmir Putin in 2000, 2004 and 2012, and Dmitriy Medvedev in 2008.

  3. 3.

    For example, Golosov (2011) and McFaul and Stoner-Weiss (2008) suggest that the 1999 elections were among the freest and the most competitive in contemporary Russian history. Since that time, the fairness and competitiveness of elections have been deteriorating gradually. For instance, following the 2011 and the 2012 elections, after not being allowed to monitor the 2007 and the 2008 elections, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) mission reported that fair electoral competition was declining. Individual reports can be accessed at: https://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/russia.

  4. 4.

    The number includes 46 “oblasts,” 21 “republics,” 9 “krays,” 4 “autonomous okrugs,” 2 “cities of federal significance,” and 1 “autonomous oblast.”

  5. 5.

    The dismissal of sitting governors by the president took place mainly in cases of open disloyalty or incompetence. For example, prior to the 2007 electoral campaign, the governors of the Nizhny Novgorod and Samara regions were forced to resign owing to their inability to mobilize votes for the ruling party in the upcoming parliamentary elections (Gel’man 2007). However, once Dmitriy Medvedev became the president in 2008, he used his right to dismiss governors as an opportunity to force regional “heavyweights” into retirement (Slider 2010), i.e., powerful governors who controlled regions from the mid-1980s or early 1990s, namely Yegor Stroev (the Orel region), Mintimer Shaimiev (Tatarstan), Murtaz Rakhimov (Bashkortostan), and Yuri Luzhkov (Moscow city). Most of them resigned voluntarily in exchange for some kind of compensation.

  6. 6.

    It was expected that their seats would be transferred to other candidates after elections were held. In the elections of 1999 and 2003, governors accounted for 88% and 75% of all regional officials serving as poster candidates, respectively (Tkacheva 2009). By the early spring of 2007, 94% of governors announced their affiliations with the United Russia party, and most of them (65 governors) served as poster candidates (Gel’man 2007).

  7. 7.

    For example, before the 2007 elections, two opposition newspapers were closed in Mordovia; in the Saratov region, 11 criminal cases were opened against investigative journalists.

  8. 8.

    In fact, our results are robust to the exclusion of the 1999 elections; they are available upon request.

  9. 9.

    Except in six southern ethnic republics (Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia, and North Ossetia-Alania) plus three northern “autonomous okrugs” (Khanty Mansiysk, Yamalo-Nenets, and Nenets), where governors are elected by regional parliaments.

  10. 10.

    Five regional elections were held on the “unified election day” in 2012, 8 in 2013, 30 in 2014, 24 in 2015, 9 in 2016, 17 in 2017, 26 in 2018, and 18 in 2019.

  11. 11.

    Kabardino-Balkaria, the fourth region by Muslim population share, has 70%, and the fifth region, Karachay-Cherkessia, has 54.6%.

  12. 12.

    In those regions, the average officially reported turnout rates across the elections we analyze are 94.5%, 87.9%, and 85.9%, respectively; the average ruling party share is 96.8%, 83.0%, and 87.9%, respectively. In contrast, the corresponding numbers for the rest of the country are 64.1% and 55.3%.

  13. 13.

    The estimation results are available upon request.

  14. 14.

    Starting from the early 2000s, a notable tendency emerged to lengthen regional governors’ terms from 4 to 5 years. Observations corresponding to 4-year terms constitute about 68% of the sample for the election period and only about 13% for the appointment period.

  15. 15.

    Since presidential elections are held in March and parliamentary elections are held in December, we use the previous year's values of regional variables for presidential elections and current year's values for parliamentary elections.

  16. 16.

    For an example, when it was announced publicly that a governor would be reappointed a week before the expiration of his term, see http://www.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/6172 (in Russian).

  17. 17.

    In those cases, regional governors stayed in office up to several months more or less consistent with their term limits in order to hold regional and national elections simultaneously, thus saving organizational costs and encouraging voter turnout.

  18. 18.

    Konstantin Titov (the Samara region) and Aman Tuleev (the Kemerovo region).

  19. 19.

    Acting governors held offices in the Bashkortostan region in December 2003 and in the Perm region in March 2004.

  20. 20.

    We define the middle period (40–50% of the term remaining) as the reference period when reporting the results in the tables.

  21. 21.

    We treat a governor as local (versus external) if he has significant experience in or personal ties with the region, such as experience in local government, business, or other organizations. A local governor originally may come from another region, but may have several years of professional experience in the local region prior to taking office.

  22. 22.

    In fact, the Courier Survey has been conducted since 1992, but the data before 2003 do not contain information about respondents’ regions, which is essential for our analysis.

  23. 23.

    In some years, the surveys do not use binary, but Likert scale questions, offering respondents the possibility of assessing whether they approve of the president’s policies and actions on a scale from zero to four or from one to ten. We transform all answers in such cases into “yes” or “no” to generate comparable observations.

  24. 24.

    Though presidential approval and approval of the United Russia party indeed are not the same things, we still believe that they are correlated positively and, thus, a measure based on presidential approval can safely be used for the purposes of our analysis.

  25. 25.

    For the discrete measure of Time, we define five periods instead of ten as in the previous analysis, owing to a lack of observations.

  26. 26.

    We extend the set of controls by entering one additional variable: the average temperature in the region on the day of elections, since weather may be an important predictor of voter turnout.

  27. 27.

    The question we use for our analysis is available in the surveys after the 2011 elections only.

  28. 28.

    We also evaluated a number of alternative thresholds, e.g., 1.5 and 2. The results are similar to those presented below and are available upon request.

  29. 29.

    Although the purpose of the exercise is to detect precincts with abnormally high correlations between turnout and the ruling party’s vote share, the particular threshold value is rather ad hoc. We also tried a number of alternative values (e.g., 1 and 1.2) and obtained similar results.


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This research was supported by a grant from the CERGE-EI Foundation under a program of the Global Development Network (GDN). All opinions expressed are those of the authors and have not been endorsed by CERGE-EI or the GDN. All errors remaining in this text are the responsibility of the authors. This article was prepared in part while Dmitriy Vorobyev held a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with the Wisconsin Russia Project, sponsored by Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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See Figs. 9 and 10 and Tables 7, 8 and 9.

Fig. 9

Kernel densities of electoral statistics by elections (1999–2004)

Fig. 10

Kernel densities of electoral statistics by elections (2007–2012)

Table 8 Summery statistics: main independent variables
Table 9 Summery statistics: main independent variables for Levada’s survey (2011)

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Sidorkin, O., Vorobyev, D. Extra votes to signal loyalty: regional political cycles and national elections in Russia. Public Choice 185, 183–213 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11127-019-00747-8

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  • Political cycle
  • Elections
  • Electoral fraud
  • Russia

JEL Classification

  • D72
  • D73
  • P26