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Wikimedia Commons, Source: duma.gov.ru

Russian Parliamentary Elections: Mission Accomplished

The Kremlin ordered a “constitutional majority” of two-thirds of the seats for its United Russia party and the voters delivered – or more precisely, the regime’s representatives who are politically responsible for the election results in the country’s 85 regions did. The landslide victory of the party that Alexei Navalny labeled as “party of crooks and thieves” did not really come as a surprise. Because once again, extensive use was made of a set the instruments that had already proven their efficiency in the previous elections.

Election management according to a proven pattern

In Russian elections under Putinism, the desired outcome is essentially ensured by six measures. Firstly, there is the adjustment, i.e., manipulation of the electoral law. In 2016, for example, an election law was (re)introduced, according to which 225 seats are allocated in constituencies and 225 seats are allocated via federal and regional lists. This creates ideal conditions for the Kremlin party to win at least the majority of mandates. In 2021, the voting period was extended to three days and electronic voting was introduced in seven regions. Both measures massively limited transparency. These regions included Moscow, where 17.5 percent of eligible voters registered to vote electronically, according to Mayor Sobyanin, and Rostov, where in addition some 600,000 new citizens from the self-proclaimed “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Lugansk were also able to cast their ballots.

Another manipulative component is the registration process by the Central Election Commission, to which, as in the past, a considerable number of – primarily independent – candidates fell victim to.   They were barred under a series of pretexts ranging from allegedly having faked the signatures needed to get on the ballot or having cooperated with “extremist” organizations such as Nawalny’s anti-corruption foundation, to having dual citizenship or offshore assets, which was the CEC’s claim for blocking one of the most prominent communist candidates, Pavel Grudinin, from the race. Conversely, a special scam to confuse voters, as in the past, was the registration of “doubles” i.e., candidates with the same or similar names and sometimes even congruent appearances. This was practiced in more than 20 cases this time – most prominently in St. Petersburg with the Yabloko candidate Boris Vishnevsky, who even had to fight off two doubles.

Other elements included highly biased reporting in the almost completely state-controlled media, administrative obstruction of the opposition’s election campaigns, as well as voter control, in which the Kremlin party’s classic clientele, especially from the broadly based public sector, was induced to vote with gentle and not so gentle pressure. This tactic includes election gifts to pensioners, soldiers, and state employees, to whom the government granted one-off payments of 15,000 rubles (180 euros) in the weeks before the election. In the (metropolitan) districts with deviance potential, on the other hand, no incentive to vote was offered and the regime simply relied on the electorate’s widespread disinterest to vote in an election in which, according to popular opinion, there was nothing to be decided upon anyway.

Finally, the arsenal this time again included the classic strategy of electoral fraud, which was facilitated not only by three-day and electronic voting, but also by the fact that video surveillance, introduced in 2016, was severely restricted and the two OSCE institutions – the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the Parliamentary Assembly – were once again after 2007 and 2008 effectively denied an election observation mission, contrary to OSCE rules. Referring to the pandemic, Russia would only allow 50 observers from ODIHR and 10 from the Parliamentary Assembly. The fact that the Russian press published recordings of training sessions on electoral fraud documents that nothing was left to chance in this respect either. However, if one disregards the notorious strongholds of electoral fraud, particularly in the south of the Federation, the other precautions taken meant that there was no need to resort to fraud to such an extent that it could have triggered mass protests, as it did in 2011 and, more recently, after the presidential elections in Belarus. The more than 4,000 incidents reported by the election observation organization “Golos” are within the range of what is usual in Russia.

This increasingly refined set of instruments for undermining political representation and participation, especially since the 2011 parliamentary elections, is reflected in the results of the Transformation Index (BTI): Russia’s score for this criterion has declined by a total of 2.5 points on a ten-point scale since the BTI 2006. Only ten of the countries surveyed in the BTI have shown a more negative trend over time. In the current BTI country report, Russia is consequently described as “a regime that, while authoritarian in the basic patterns of power distribution and reproduction, at the same time permits institutions normally associated with democracy a shallow existence.”

Plebiscite with flaws

Hence it came to pass that, with a slightly higher turnout of 51.6 percent (2016: 47.9), United Russia garnered 49.8 percent of the vote and, in terms of direct mandates, 198 out of 225. This constitutes a slight decline compared to the last election, when the party received 54.2 percent of the party votes and 203 direct mandates, but it guarantees the desired two-thirds majority of seats (especially since, as the strongest party, it is also credited with those shares that went to parties that failed to clear the five-percent hurdle). The communist party CPRF came an outstanding second with 18.9 percent, making up for its losses of 5.9 percent in the last election. It was followed by the ultranationalist LDPR, which lost 7.5 percent (2016: 13.1), and the party “A Just Russia – For Truth”, which gained a slightly improved result of 7.4 percent (2016: 6.2), and as a newcomer the party “New People” with 5.3 percent. The general assessment is that this is a Kremlin-created party to present an offer to the previous “non-systemic” opposition.

The election results correspond cum grano salis to the polls of the relevant institutes before the election – with one significant exception: the Kremlin party “United Russia,” which came in at just 27 percent in approval, with a declining trend (this in marked contrast to the 2016 elections). It is not difficult to see how the gap was filled.

The election result thus provided the desired plebiscite for Putin’s regime, which was certainly important for the Kremlin – not to assert itself against political opponents, but to be able to point to the supposedly broad support among the people. However, the potential of the political system shaped by Vladimir Putin has largely been exhausted. In the words of political scientist Tatyana Stanovaya: “He is conserving the system instead of developing it.” Until the global financial crisis of 2008/2009, the system’s stability and the incumbent’s popularity were based on the country’s economic resurgence. Fueled by the global oil boom, this generated some trickle-down effects from which the population also benefited to a certain extent despite galloping inequality. Since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the country’s resurgence as a global political actor, fueled by nationalist rhetoric and an increasingly militant demarcation from the West, has taken its place as a legitimizing resource, compensating to a certain extent for the stagnation of real incomes since 2008.

On a Great Russia wave into the dusk

It is therefore no coincidence that the two most prominent representatives of this course, Minister of Defence Sergey Shoygu and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, were chosen as the two top candidates of the Kemlin party United Russia – and not the discarded party leader Dmitry Medvedev. Although their popularity ratings before the election were only about 10 percent (Putin: 33) according to the Levada Center, Lavrov, in particular, has distinguished himself in recent years with a brute rhetoric that provided the background music for Russia’s foreign policy assertiveness, but reduced his purpose as the country’s chief diplomat to absurdity.

This nationalist virus infected not only the notorious political hooligan Zhirinovsky and his LDPR, as well as the Soviet nostalgics in the CPRF, but also the party “A Just Russia”, which after many years of decline managed to get over the five-percent hurdle again in this election. Once launched by the Kremlin as a “left-wing” alternative to the ruling party and nominally still social democratic and a member of the Socialist International, it joined forces with two other small parties in January: the “Patriots of Russia” and the “For Truth” party and went into the elections under the name “A Just Russia – For Truth”. The latter is a very special creation of writer Zakhar Prilepin as well as his fellow writer from the right-wing radical and Great Russian Isborsky Club, Nikolay Starikov. Prilepin is an outright fascist who obviously emulates Gabriele d’Annunzio and, with his permanent presence in Donetsk, wants to install something like the latter’s 1919 “Free State of Fiume” (today’s Croatian Rijeka), although he lacks d’Annunzio’s aristocratic flair.

A costly course with risks

However, this anti-Western and anti-liberal course, which is firmly anchored in the Moscow political class, comes with a steep economic and social price: Making Russia sanction-proof and asserting it as a major military power with a radius of action extending as far as Africa is accomplished at the expense of basic social standards for society and continually forces the economy under the corrupt state curatorship and into the service of foreign and military policy ambitions.

It is therefore also no coincidence that the Communist Party has experienced something of a rebirth in the elections (although the “smart vote” strategy to vote for everyone but the Kremlin party, propelled by Aleksey Navalny, is unlikely to have played a significant role, with 137 voting recommendations in favor of CPRF candidates, thanks in part to a blockade of the relevant websites and apps). The CPRF at least gives the illusion of offering a political alternative for the population’s main concerns: the sharp rise in inflation, poverty, unemployment, the increase of the retirement age, corruption, and average incomes that remain at 2008 levels of barely $500. For the time being, however, the role of the parliament as a smoothly functioning legislative machinery with the compliant cooperation of the three nominally oppositional “system parties” and the small faction of “new people” will remain unchanged.

The real significance of the Duma elections therefore lies less in the questionable plebiscitary confirmation of the increasingly repressive regime than in the future: the current eighth electoral convocation extends beyond the magic year 2024, when the next presidential election will be held. Although Putin has secured the right to serve two more terms in 2020 through a last-minute plot in the process of constitutional reform, whether and how he will exercise this right remains an open question. If he were indeed to step down as early as that date, not only would the pivotal axis of the regime disappear, but in the course of the inevitable reorganization of personnel and thus of power politics, the State Duma would also potentially take on a more active role and the party blocs would be set In motion. There are many examples of how institutions in autocratic twilight sleep can become vehicles of democratic change when circumstances change. In this respect, even the boring election results might prove exciting.

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