The workplace in modern Russia is a key location for political mobilization. In their paper ‘Political Machines at Work: Voter Mobilization and Electoral Subversion in the Workplace’, Timothy Frye, Ora John Reuter, and David Szakonyi note that almost one quarter (24%) of responding employees were involved in some forms of ‘political mobilization’.
The research was based on two original surveys of employers and employees carried out during the 2011 parliamentary elections in Russia. The first survey involved top managers of 922 companies from 24 sectors of the economy in 15 oblast and republic capitals from November 15 to December 22, 2011. It was carried out by WCIOM (Russian Public Opinion Research Center). The second survey involving 1,600 people from 130 locations in 45 Russian regions was carried out by Levada Center.
An analysis of the two surveys showed that 25% of employees claim that their employers had tried to influence their decision to vote. Fifteen percent of the voters believe that their employment, salary, and/or benefits depend on their decision to participate in the election.
Those most feeling their management’s attempts to influence their decision to vote were staff of the federal authorities (37%) and regional and local authorities (32%). Third place is taken by staff of public companies (30%). Employers from NGOs and non-commercial institutions made the fewest attempts to influence the choices of their staff (11%).
‘Countries with prevailing state property, sedentary assets, financial dependence on the state, and a slack labour market prove to be most subject to the risk of autocratic governance’.
Company management has multiple indirect levers of influence. They can offer a ‘carrot’, such as a salary increase or additional benefits, in exchange for votes, but they also have powerful ‘sticks’. They can threaten to cut salaries or benefits, put employees to shame, postpone a promotion or dismiss employees who refuse to cooperate. Media reports showed many examples of such practices during the 2011 parliamentary elections in Russia. For example, staff of the Kola Mining and Steel Company in Murmansk Oblast was forced under threat of dismissal to vote by absentee ballot in their workplaces.
‘Threatening voters through the labour market can play a more important role in voter behaviour than positive incentives largely described in academic literature on clientelism’, the researchers say.
In addition, employers interact with their staff over a long period of time. Repeated interaction allows management to supervise what voters keep their promises to vote for the ‘political machine’. This plants an understanding in the employee voters that disloyalty will be followed by a punishment or deprivation of future benefits. At last, employers can break the secrecy of the ballot and find out how their staff votes.
According to the analysis, managers of large, financially dependent companies, which are sensitive to regulator’s sanctions or expropriation (iecompanies with low asset mobility), or characterized by a slack labour market, are more subject to political pressure. They ‘sell’ their loyalty to the regime at a minimal price, and, at the same time, they are able to ‘mobilize’ their employees especially effectively.
Chart 1. Involvement in political mobilization by sector
Percent of companies involved in the political process
Percentage from the total sampling
Oil and gas
Trade and services
Source: Political Machines at Work: Voter Mobilization and Electoral Subversion in the Workplace
Speaking of employees, those who receive considerable (as compared to their salaries) non-material benefits from their employers are the most dependent on their jobs. This condition makes staff mobilization easier for employers.
Frye, Reuter, and Szakonyi believe that companies with low asset mobility can undermine democracy not only because they are afraid of redistribution that is not in their favourin the age of democracy, but also because they are vulnerable to pressure coming from an autocratic power.
The researchers have found that elections are more likely to be distorted in countries with a large public sector since employees of state institutions are very vulnerable to state pressure, and public companies receive organizational and financial support from the ‘patron’ state. Companies dependent on the state are involved in political mobilization much more often than more economically independent counteragents.
According to the researchers, if economic production is concentrated in a relatively small number of companies, the autocrats can more easily mobilize the staff, win the election, and prolong their term of power. Large companies (in Russia, unlike in most of other countries, large companies arethe majority – OPEC.ru) are particularly suitable for voter mobilization since, despite the high costs of the process, they generate a massive result in election distortion.
Thus, countries whoseeconomiesare characterized by prevailing state property, sedentary assets, financial dependence on the state, and a slack labour market, prove to be most subject to the risk of autocratic governance.
Frye, Reuter, and Szakonyi believe that economic liberalization, which increases the independence of employers from the state and employees from employers,makes it more costly to distort elections through pressure on voters and thus promotes political liberalization.