POVALIKHINO, Russia — With election day looming, Nikolai Loktev was in a panic: The mayor of a tiny village of log homes, wood-burning stoves and rutted dust roads 300 miles east of Moscow, he was operating for re-election unopposed.
In a Western democracy, this might not essentially set off alarms; it would even be welcomed. However in Russia, the place elections are rigged and the ruling United Russia social gathering nearly all the time wins, the bedrock political precept is to create the phantasm of democratic selection.
For that, Mr. Loktev wanted an opponent.
But it surely was proving troublesome to seek out one within the village. He had already requested various Povalikhino’s residents, together with his assistant at metropolis corridor and a member of the Communist Occasion who had run and misplaced in elections in 2011, however each declined.
When he lastly discovered who he thought was a keen patsy within the individual of 1 Marina Udgodskaya, who cleans metropolis corridor, he thought his troubles have been over.
However then she received.
No one was extra stunned than Ms. Udgodskaya, who didn’t marketing campaign and who stated she had agreed to run within the election final month solely to assist her boss.
“He simply wanted any person else, anyone in any respect, so the election may happen,” Ms. Udgodskaya stated.
At first, she stated, she was “fearful and confused” when the outcomes rolled in, however she is now fairly clearly warming to the thought of the mayoralty. “You shouldn’t anticipate something in an election,” she stated.
She agreed to be sworn in, greater than doubling her wage to 29,000 rubles, or about $380 a month, and settled into the mayor’s workplace in metropolis corridor earlier than isolating at dwelling final week due to a coronavirus scare.
As a primary order of enterprise — after discovering her alternative as cleaner, that’s — she plans to convey streetlights to the village, she stated, one thing that folks have lengthy been asking for.
The goings-on in Povalikhino precipitated a Russian media frenzy, focusing predictably on the farcical nature of all of it. However by illuminating the important cynicism that’s gnawing away at democracy all over the world, the election of Ms. Udgodskaya served a extra critical function.
Other than in a couple of Arab monarchies and the remaining Communist dictatorships in locations like North Korea, democratic elections are the one methodology in virtually all of the world at the moment for legitimizing political energy.
That’s why Russia, various different former Soviet states and a rising variety of nations apply so-called managed democracy, the place elections happen on schedule, like clockwork, however the incumbent nearly by no means loses.
To realize this, the police squelch actual political opposition, and election commissions bump promising candidates off the poll with technicalities — comparable to an electoral ban in Russia in opposition to the opposition chief Aleksei A. Navalny, who was additionally incapacitated with poison earlier than this yr’s native elections.
These repressive measures have confirmed to be efficient — generally too efficient. The issue then turns into discovering supposed opponents to play the function of losers, to maintain up the facade of democratic course of.
In Russia, Vladimir V. Putin has received the presidency 3 times in opposition to the identical hapless candidate, Gennady Zyuganov, a humorless man with a droning, picket voice conveniently put ahead by the Communist Occasion. In 2018, Mr. Putin ran in opposition to a lineup that included his reputed goddaughter, Ksenia Sobchak, who after all additionally misplaced.
In Turkmenistan, the president as soon as ran against his minister of water assets. In Kazakhstan in 2011, a candidate operating in opposition to the president endorsed the president.
“I didn’t wish to grow to be president as a result of that isn’t attainable,” the Kazakh presidential candidate, Mels Yeleusizov, said in an unusually candid interview on the time of his function as a fig leaf of democratic course of.
Andrei Kolesnikov, a political analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Heart, stated that in Russia, political advisers to the Kremlin preserve a detailed eye on nationwide and native politics, scouting for expertise for each pro-government candidates and for many who can plausibly and safely play the function of losers.
“This is without doubt one of the devices of legitimizing elections in Russia,” Mr. Kolesnikov stated in a phone interview of fielding weak opponents. “They appear to be elections with out being actual elections.”
The system does sometimes cough up the flawed outcome. Within the Siberian area of Khabarovsk, an opposition candidate received the governorship and was later arrested, touching off months of protests. “In small communities, such breakdowns can occur,” Mr. Kolesnikov stated.
That, after all, is what occurred in Povalikhino.
Irina Nechayeva, the mayor’s assistant, stated it wasn’t a lot the assumed hopelessness of operating in opposition to Mr. Loktev that turned off most individuals however, in truth, the distant risk of successful.
“It’s a must to hearken to all people’s perspective,” Ms. Ivanova stated of the mayor’s function, “and in Russia, there as many opinions as there are folks.”
Ms. Udgodskaya, 35, lives along with her husband, a day laborer, and two teenage kids in a comfy, if climate crushed, home, elevating chickens, geese, rabbits and geese within the yard. In an interview, she stated she was by no means all for politics and had no thought whether or not her story mirrored any bigger points. “I like farming,” she stated.
In Povalikhino, logging vans rumble by way of city, sending up splashes of soiled water from potholes on the primary road. To get round, the residents navigate a maze of picket walkways to remain above the swampy floor, passing backyard plots and cow pastures.
Tatyana Murzina, a clerk within the village retailer, stated Ms. Udgodskaya stood an opportunity solely as a result of the village is sufficiently small that folks knew her personally and preferred her. “Every thing was clear to us,” Ms. Murzina stated.
Vladimir Yeltsov, 62, a retired trucker, stated he voted for Ms. Udgodskaya, “although I pity her,” as a result of the village price range by no means has sufficient to repair the roads. The previous mayor, Mr. Loktev, truly did job repairing water mains, he stated, however was such an introvert he not often talked to folks. “He didn’t present he cared,” Mr. Yeltsov stated.
Mr. Loktev declined to be interviewed. Tamara Lokteva, his spouse, stated in an interview exterior their tidy blue home that the loss was a “very painful matter.”
Ms. Lokteva stated that her husband by no means actually needed to be mayor and by no means clung to energy. He now blames her for encouraging him to run twice, and for the way in which issues turned out. “He all the time says, ‘You bought me into this.’”