Friday, January 27, 2012

Webcams in Russia

Russia is following Azerbaijan's lead by installing webcams in polling stations for the March 2012 election. Beginning in 2008, Azerbaijan installed webcams in approximately 10% of its polling stations. As I show in a 2010 Electoral Studies article (gated), the presence of webcams was associated with lower reported turnout but had a limited effect on pro-regime voting. In the article, I suggested that polling station officials may report turnout more honestly as webcams would reveal extensive padding of voter participation. However, other forms of fraud would not be revealed through webcam footage. The research supports the OSCE contention that  webcams complement, but do not substitute for, the in-person observation process.

Russia's plan, which would outfit almost all polling stations, would undermine careful observation of the footage. Azerbaijan's placement of webcams in some polling stations permitted me to assess the effects as a quasi experiment, with treatment and control groups. If Russia indeed covers most precincts, it will be difficult to watch all of the footage ("crowdsourced" observation, where many volunteers monitor the footage, may be necessary). Moreover, by "treating" most polling stations, it will not be possible to assess if the presence or absence of webcams affects the process or outcomes.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Taking Stock of Events

Immediately following December's Parliamentary Election, I confidently declared that the election results would not be game-changing. Public as well as elite responses to the outcomes certainly suggest that the political climate has been altered significantly as we enter a new year.

Some of my expectations have been borne out by events on the ground: the reassignment of Vladislav Surkov and President Medvedev's proposal of institutional changes serving as the most prominent examples of elite-level adjustments to public dissatisfaction. But, my expectation that protesters could be quieted by short-term enhancements to social welfare did not take into account the apparent socio-economic characteristics of the demonstrators. Careful research takes time, and often lags behind events, but if observations of protests populated by young and/or middle-class citizens turn out to be accurate, policy-based payoffs may not be enough. Russia's political elite may indeed offer various kinds of payments as the election approaches, but their effects may be mitigated by the seeming diversity of demands among the dissatisfied.

If the scheduled February protest garners large-scale participation and limited or no repression, it could propel events even further into uncharted territories for contemporary Russia. But, as Ukrainians learned five hard years after Maidan, an opposition united primarily to unseat an authoritarian regime may win a battle - but winning the war is much more difficult.