On September 18, Russians will go to the polls to elect a new Duma, the lower house of the country’s federal parliament. Up for grab are all 450 members of the Russian legislature. Duma’s political role in Russia is limited since it does not elect the government and the country’s budget is managed by Kremlin with Duma’s approval, often with little resistance from the latter. Given the subservient status of the Duma, recent polls show that the Duma elections have drawn little interest among the wider public, with 43 percent saying that they have completely ignored the 2016 Duma campaigns.
The 2016 voting will return back to an old, “mixed” system through which half of Duma, or 225 seats, will be filled by political party affiliated candidates, while the other half will be filled by individuals without any party affiliations. What it means is that each of Russia’s nearly 112 million voters will get two separate ballots to vote for two members of the Duma.
This election system was in place until President Putin changed it in 2007 and later again in 2011, allegedly to tighten his control over the Russian legislators. Whether the recent reversal to the old system is going to make Russia more democratic is an open question.
Although the ruling United Russia party continues to be the most dominant political party by far, Kremlin is aware of its declining support base under difficult economic circumstances. United Russia currently controls 238 seats (i.e., 53%) of the Duma. Based on August polling results, the number of Russians who are willing to vote for the ruling United Russia party went down from 39% to 31%. Although President Vladimir Putin’s approval remained steady at 82%, Premier Dmitry Medvedev’s approval rating went down from 55% in July to 48% in August.
Against the above backdrop, reverting back to the older form of the election to elect 50% of the candidates with no party affiliation serves few purposes. Firstly, it may buy Kremlin some goodwill, given that many Russians find this election process more democratic since in this system people can vote non-party affiliated local candidates with whom they can connect. And secondly, the current system may work as an additional instrument for Kremlin to hedge itself against possible uncertainties by not allowing any other political party to have too many seats in the parliament.
The key objective for President Putin will be to ensure that the new Duma remains just as pro-Kremlin as the previous ones. Even if the United Russia party fails to achieve an absolute majority, the three other main opposition parties, i.e., the Communists, the Just Russia party, and the Liberal Democratic Party are expected to secure just enough support to ensure that the Duma continues to be a Kremlin rubber stamp.
Polls do not have rock solid integrity
Recent elections in Russia have been marred by controversies. Street protests ensued after the 2011 elections, mostly due to widely perceived electoral frauds. For many, it was an election rigged to preserve the United Russia party’s grip on power. The post election protests were the largest expression of public dissent that Vladimir Putin had ever faced, although the efficacy of the protests eventually waned considerably, due to Kremlin’s strong crackdown and infighting among the opposition parties.
The upcoming elections may continue to be accused of numerous breaches and manipulations by local and federal authorities in their attempt to get desired results. Russians have a saying attributed to Stalin: It’s not so important as to how people vote as to how the vote is counted.
Usual electoral tricks include stacks of ballots filled in advance and then put somehow into counting boxes. Or genuine ballots with “wrong” results being excluded from counting by a local counting commission. Another trick is when groups of loyal supporters from either small Government offices or crony businesses are taken by bus to polling stations away from their homes, as though they just happen to be out of town on the voting day and still want to vote remotely. The incumbent party is the most likely beneficiary of such an arrangement. This practice is known as “carouselle”.
Kremlin has made repeated public assurances that elections will be truly fair. Perhaps to prove that point, Vladimir Churov, a well-known pro-establishment head of Elections Commission with the nick name “the Wizard” was replaced with Ms.Ella Pamfilova, head of the Presidential Human Rights Commission, who despite her closeness to Kremlin enjoys considerable public trust.
Fourteen political parties have been allowed to register candidates for vote. However, only few of them can be considered as a capable opposition to the United Russia party. These parties include Russian United Democratic Party or “Yabloko”, led by Mr. Grigory Yavlinsky, a respected liberal from the Gorbachev era, and “PARNAS”, headed by a liberal former Prime Minister Mr. Mikhail Kasianov from Putin’s first Cabinet in 2000-2004. None of these parties are, however, expected to win very many parliamentary seats since they have for years been subject to pro-government media scrutiny, some of which have been unfair.
Other parties include political light weights like Motherland, Russia’s Patriots, Russia’s Communists, Greens, Party of Growth, and some others that are barely visible in the Russian political scene.
United Russia will prevail
Opinion polls show a confused voter attitude. Though the United Russia party headed by Prime Minister Mr. Medvedev lost some ground due to growing frustration among Russians over a lingering financial crisis, their votes may not go to the Russian liberal opposition, but to the other three parties in Duma which are also pro-Kremlin – the Communist Party, the Zhirinovsky party curiously called the Liberal Democrats, and the “Just Russia” party led by one of President Putin’s close allies from St.Petersburg, Mr. Sergey Mironov.
Given the relative weakness of the “opposition” parties, no matter how the popular vote is eventually split on election day among these parties, the overall election results will be in favor of the current establishment, with United Russia party still dominating the election defying all possible political alignments among the opposition.
Kremlin understands that as soon as it lets one set of dissenters run free, a whole new stream would follow. That is exactly what happened about a century ago when the Tzar reluctantly introduced the constitution and convened the first Duma to calm massive political turmoil of the first Russian revolution. Irritated by a few voices of protest in the otherwise obedient Duma, the Tzar dissolved it only to discover that the next set of dissenters were even more opposed to his rule. That was the beginning of his eventual downfall in 1917.
The forthcoming Duma will face challenging political and economic realities during its 5-year term. Russia now finds itself in deepening financial stress. GDP dropped by 3.87% in 2015 and is expected to drop by 0.5-0.6% in 2016. Social unrest is on the rise with labor strikes and unrest brewing.
Russia’s current economic stagnation warrants electoral legitimacy to preserve national cohesion. Back in 2008, Russia’s national reserve fund was $140 billion . As of now, the prediction is that the reserve funds will be exhausted by 2017, making it difficult for the country to pay social benefits, state employee pensions and the salaries. Down the line, it is quite possible the government may have no choice but to embark on serious economic reforms.
The main question now is whether the new Duma will be willing or able to recognize rising discontent and bring strong changes to the country’s budget and legislative process. Kremlin for its part, knowing that President Putin still enjoys 82% approval ratings, may have other objectives, i.e., to prevent a stronger Duma by various means, one of which could be the reversal of the electoral process back to its old form, unless the politically unaffiliated candidates show up with more surprises than currently envisioned.