ISSN 2330-717X

Putin Maintains Firm Grip On Power Ahead Of 2024 Presidential Elections – Analysis

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By Saaransh Mishra

In the latest elections held between 17-19 September, United Russia won a majority of seats to the lower house of the Parliament, the Duma. The Putin-backed party, which has won every nationwide election it has entered, garnered 49.82 percent of the votes, equivalent to 126 seats, along with their candidates winning in 198 single-mandate constituencies, taking the tally to a constitutional majority of 324 seats out of 450 in total.

The other parties that earned representation in the Duma include the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), A Just Russia-For Truth, and a recently-formed party called New People. However, A Just Russia and LDPR have often acted in coordination with the government and neither has the KPRF challenged the government significantly. Therefore, some experts believe that the present outcome essentially has minimal non-systemic opposition voices in the Duma.

These results are of great significance in the Russian political context and for President Vladimir Putin ahead of the 2024 presidential elections. Putin praised the elections as ‘free and fair’ and said that they were held ‘in strict accordance with the law’ amidst various allegations of election code violations. Even though it is not certain whether he will contest in 2024, appoint a successor, or devise a separate strategy, a supportive legislature could help in ensuring a peaceful transfer of power to the next President—be it Putin or someone else. After all, the United Russia’s parliamentary majority facilitated the controversial constitutional change which nullified Putin’s previous terms as President, allowing him to contest again for two more terms from 2024 to 2036.

Although there was little doubt regarding United Russia’s impending victory before the elections, the party’s and President Putin’s popularity had been impacted due to the economic situation in the country, faltering living standards and corruption allegations. These factors could have possibly jeopardised the attainment of constitutional majority of more than 300 seats. In fact, Putin’s approval ratings have fallen to the lowest in over two decadestouching 59 percent in April 2020. Additionally, Levada Centre polls from February showed that amongst the age group 18-24, only 31 percent want Putin as President for another term, while 57 percent oppose the same. In the age group of 25-39, only 39 percent favoured another term for Putin and 51 percent were against it. Whilst all these numbers are still quite high, Putin has usually enjoyed much greater support throughout his tenures.

Polls in recent months also indicated that less than 30 percent of the respondents wanted to vote for United Russia, down from 45 percent in similar polls during the last Duma elections in 2016. But, ultimately the party ended up getting close to 50 percent of the votes, triggering widespread allegations of election fraud.

Post elections, independent vote-monitoring group, Golos, reported having received close to 5,000 incidents of possible voting violations, including the emergence of a large number of videos from various polling stations across the country that seem to show blatant ballot-box stuffing , accusations of ‘intimidation and repression’, online voting manipulations, etc.

Moreover, in the months preceding the elections, many opponent leaders either fled the country or were barred from seeking public office. Putin’s foremost critic, Alexei Navalny, who was being treated in Germany for nerve-agent  poisoning, was jailed in January on charges of parole violations in a conviction related to financial crimes. Navalny’s organisation, Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), was also labeled ‘extremist’ by a Russian court ,and therefore, his allies could also not contest elections. Ilya Yashin, an outspoken Putin critic and a close ally of Navalny’s, said that he had been barred from running in the elections for supporting Navalny. Lyubov Sobol, one of Navalny’s key allies, reportedly fled Russia, post being sentenced to 1.5 years of ‘restricted freedom’ after she was adjudged guilty of inciting violations of coronavirus rules by calling pro-Navalny rallies this winter.

Electoral officials barred Communist Party’s Pavel Grudinin from contesting in the elections claiming that he has offshore assets, while Yabloko Party’s Lev Schlossberg was also disqualified due to his links with the Anti-Corruption Foundation. Others such as former MP Dmitry Gudkov, who fled to Bulgaria and Violetta Grudina, who used to run the Murmansk branch of Navalny’s organisation have also accused the government of intimidation because of which they were disallowed from contesting.

The government undertook broader steps to tighten its grip over journalists, independent media, and the civil society, designating a lot of them as ‘foreign agents’, which has impeded their ability to write freely against the establishment. Failure to comply with the measures not only accompany being labelled as a ‘foreign agent’ but also means paying hefty fines such as the ones amounting to over US $3 million faced by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty for refusing to label its content, and even imprisonment. The designation has also forced media outlets to close down, as seen with independent business news site VTimes, which closed down in June, citing that the label of a foreign agent had ruined its business model.

In order to get opposition voices into the Parliament by working around the clampdown on dissent, Kremlin-critic Alexei Navalny and some of his allies developed a ‘Smart Voting’  tactic to consolidate opposition-minded voters around one particular candidate running against United Russia in each of the country’s 225 districts irrespective of whether they were liberals, nationalists, or Stalinists. The idea, as Ruslan Shaveddinov  (one of Navalny’s allies) told The New York Times, was to get as many non-Kremlin-approved politicians as possible to end up in the Parliament, including regional ones so that it could create some turbulence in the system. In pursuit of the same, an app was also developed but it had to be removed by Apple and Google a few days before the elections after Russian authorities supposedly threatened to prosecute local employees of these companies by claiming that the app’s interference in the election process renders it illegal.

Much to the respite of the Russian government, despite the numerous allegations levelled in these elections, there was a stark contrast in people’s reaction compared to 2011. Then, reportedly tens of thousands of people protested the alleged ballot-rigging in parliamentary elections and demanded a re-run. The recent elections failed to spark protests or demonstrations anywhere close to that scale. This could be due to the combination of political apathy at a 17-year-high as suggested by latest polls, and the supposed detentions of thousands of protesters in different waves over various issues against the government, most recent ones being in April 2021, demanding Navalny’s release from jail. Purportedly, forced conscriptions to excessively secluded military posts have also been used to silence dissent.

It is noteworthy that United Russia’s vote-share and seats slipped from 54 percent and 343 seats in 2016 to roughly 50 percent and 324 seats in 2021, while the KPRF significantly increased their vote share from 13 percent to 20 percent and seat-share from 35 to 48. Nevertheless, this is a small decline in the larger scheme of things and is unlikely to be a cause for too much concern. Especially, given the parliamentary majority which simplifies the prospect of passing legislations, paired with the political apathy and fear which have ensured that Kremlin does not face too much pressure from a protesting population, the outcome could be considered a favourable one for them. As things stand at the moment, it would appear that United Russia and Putin have successfully been able to maintain a firm grip on power ahead of the next presidential elections.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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