By Nivedita Kapoor
As Russia prepares to vote for the State Duma elections from September 17-19, the ruling United Russia (UR) party is expected to retain control of the lower house of parliament. Despite the approval ratings that have stayed well below 30 percent over the past year, most analysts believe that the party will be able to secure a majority, if not a super-majority, in the 450 member parliament. Yet, the situation today is much different from the 2016 Duma elections that saw UR attain a record 343 out of 450 seats in the Duma, benefiting from favourable public opinion following the annexation of Crimea.
In 2021, considerable effort has been expended to ensure the ‘status quo’ in the Duma ahead of the 2024 presidential elections, where President Vladimir Putin is eligible for re-election, keeping in mind the benefits of a favourable legislature to the overall process. The party system remains heavily controlled by the state, with UR benefitting from significant levels of ‘administrative mobilisation.’ The careful management of systemic opposition parties further limits the space for a major upset. Since 2003, three parties apart from UR have made it past the threshold for entry in every Duma election. These include the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) and Just Russia. The latter two often act in coordination with the government in the parliament.
The KPRF, while being the opposition party with a clear voter base and organisation structure, also has not challenged the government significantly, even though its support has touched 18 percent in the latest polls amid economic stagnation. In fact, ahead of the 2021 elections, some members of the communist party have even found themselves barred from contesting the polls. Overall, the focus has been on using state resources to build support for UR while also minimising opposition voices, with 2021 witnessing one of the harshest crackdowns on the non-systemic opposition and independent media in recent times.
The ruling party’s popularity has been impacted as economic woes have accumulated due to low growth, stagnant income levels, impact of the pandemic and rising inflation of the past months. Despite the carefully managed electoral processes and the rise of autocracy in Russia, the government does remain sensitive to public opinion, and recognises the impact of socio-economic troubles on electoral results. This was seen in Putin using his annual address to the Federal Assembly to announce economic schemes to benefit low-income families and small and medium sized businesses. A few weeks ago, a series of one-time cash payments were announced by the president ahead of the election. Apart from shoring up support for UR, experts argue that this increase in ‘paternalistic dependence’ on the state due to the difficult economic conditions also fosters a sense of loyalty with the current regime.
Apart from economic perceptions regarding their personal well-being, the appeal of UR also depends on factors like the image of the president and the perception of corruption in the government. The less people approved of Putin, the more likely they were to vote for a UR alternative, even though they do distinguish between the president and the party of power. Even though Putin’s popularity has levelled off since the highs of 2014, he still enjoys am over 57 percent approval rating, with his public support for UR seen as important for the party’s fortunes. This was seen in Putin himself nominating foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and defence minister Sergei Shoigu to head the candidates’ list for United Russia.
In addition to boosting support for UR, the administrative machinery has also focused on minimising critical voices – whether in the non-systemic opposition or the media. Opposition leader Alexey Navalny’s Anti Corruption Foundation, which has in the past years released investigations on the wealth of high-ranking Russian officials (including Putin), has been labelled an ‘extremist group.’ The Foundation’s offices in various regions have had to close as a result of the ruling. Navalny himself has been jailed for 2.5 years in a trial widely believed to be politically motivated. Also, a new law bars members of any group labelled ‘extremist’ from running for any elections for a 3–5 year period. This effectively means that former members of any such organisation cannot join any other political party or stand as an independent.
Apart from corruption exposés, the Kremlin has also been worried about the possible impact of Navalny’s Smart Voting (tactical voting to support a single opposition candidate most likely to beat the UR candidate) on election results, especially in single member districts that constitute half of the total Duma seats (the other half are filled through proportional representation). These 225 seats are especially crucial for UR, wherein success depends to a large extent on ‘backroom deals and administrative resources’ in support of the party of power. Even if Smart Voting is unlikely to lead to the UR losing its majority, it does have the ability to impact some results in bigger cities.
However, the strategy’s chances of success depends on large-scale mobilisation of candidates identified under Smart Voting. This has been made almost impossible due to banning of Navalny’s organisation and closure of all its websites. The state media watchdog Roskomnadzor has even asked global giants like Apple and Google to remove an app that promotes Smart Voting, arguing that a failure to do so would come under the category of ‘election interference.’ The cost of engaging in protest activities has also risen for the general population through laws introducing increased fines and jail sentences for these actions.
Several media organisations have been brought under the purview of the amended Foreign Agents law. Estimates suggest that out of the 22 news organisations on the list, ten media outlets have been added in the past six months, with several more journalists designated ‘foreign agents,’ which restricts their ability to raise funds and carry out functions of a newsroom. The rulings have been criticised as an attempt to crackdown on independent media that have demonstrated critical reporting of the government.
The impact of mainstream media coverage cannot be neglected either, with polls suggesting that disapproval of Navalny has increased since his imprisonment, especially among those who receive news from television. The Levada Center notes that internet users have a more positive attitude towards the opposition politician. The 18-24 demographic displays a higher approval (36 percent) of his activities when compared to that of 55+ populace (12 percent). Broadly, the current trend remains in favour of stability, with the population more comfortable with the idea of protests ‘without a leader’ on issues of socio-economic concern. There is also a generational divide in young people expressing higher levels of dissatisfaction with the direction of the country and Putin’s policies, as compared the older generation. While this is not expected to manifest in electoral results at the moment, given the higher support among the older generation that forms the bulk of UR loyal voters, its long-term impact will be an important trend to track.
Another longer-term concern is regarding the lack of strong institutions like an independent legislature or political parties that could impact an orderly transition to new political figures in the years ahead. Already, the stringent steps being taken to manage the 2021 elections have been interpreted as a sign of ‘nervousness’ in the Kremlin. Broadly, UR is expected to win the 2021 Duma elections, but events of the year demonstrate that the process of managing elections has only increased in complexity over the years, with the status quo becoming difficult to maintain.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).