Duma elections: distressed or dynamic?

Duma elections: distressed or dynamic?

Two times as many parties will contest Sunday’s vote than in 2011, but don’t expect any surprises

Election season is here, and not just in the United States.  Tens of millions of Russians will head to the polls for parliamentary elections on September 18, but few expect a big surprise. Since the last election in 2011, which prompted street protests across Russia’s largest cities, the electoral system has undergone several ‘liberalising’ reforms.

14 parties will contest this election – double the amount that participated in 2011. Meanwhile, the threshold required for admission to the Duma has been lowered to two per cent. In addition, half of the deputies will be elected individually, resulting in ostensibly increased accountability to their constituency. While the Kremlin has positioned this election as “the cleanest election in Russian history,” there is a lot going on behind the scenes.

The election results – ordinarily of utmost importance – are in this case a secondary matter; the actual conduct of the vote and its perceived legitimacy are of primary concern. As the Russian political system faces stagnation and finds itself increasingly disconnected from society, the regime needs this election to spur political dynamism and increase plurality. Thus, while a power shift is highly unlikely, the results themselves will indicate how satisfied the common Russian is with the current status quo. To better understand this unusual priority, the historical context can give important insights.

In 1999, President Vladimir Putin inherited a polarised system plagued by centrifugal tendencies that threatened to disintegrate Russia. During Putin’s first five years in Moscow, he managed to limit peripheral power and subjugate autonomous political actors, effectively constructing the basis for a new political order. However, in the process of centralising power in the Kremlin, Russia’s economic and political life stagnated. In order to test the new order and breathe life into this disjointed system, Putin’s regime must re-engage a society it has become increasingly distant from.

During Putin’s first presidency, parliamentary power was effectively put under presidential control, where it has lain dormant ever since. Now that his regime feels secure enough, the president will bring back the Duma, albeit in a different form and under much tighter control. This is why the conduct and perception of this election is so important. Not only will it set the stage for the 2018 presidential election, but will also test the loyalty of the Duma as an arena to channel competition between the country’s different economic and social interests. In addition, Sunday’s ballot will help bolster the legitimacy of both the regime and the current political order, something it has lacked in the face of rising informal sectors and political apathy.

ELECTORAL REFORMS

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While certain aspects of the parliamentary electoral system have been liberalised, few expect any “real” opposition parties to make inroads – indeed, the most prominent Kremlin adversary, Alexei Navalny, was barred from registering. Rather, the increased array of parties largely represent what is referred to as the “systemic opposition”: pro-Kremlin political interests. Thus, instead of tampering with the election results, the Kremlin has retained the power to approve candidates in advance, removing the need for direct vote manipulation. The result is likely to be a more vocal and diverse Duma, but not an institution that will be able to effectively check the power of the president, suggesting this election will not be a substantial departure from those of the past.

However, in contrast to previous years, several important political players have been allowed some leeway, and some unpopular regime politicians have been removed. Vladimir Churov, the previous head of the electoral commission and a target of much criticism during the 2011-2012 protests, has been replaced with Ella Pamfilova ­– human rights activist and oft Kremlin critic. Former Putin nemesis Mikhail Khodorkovsky has also been allowed to finance 18 candidates, while outspoken critic, Mikhail Kasyanov, participated in a debate on national state TV alongside pro-regime candidates. Kasyanov’s People’s Freedom Party will participate in this election, even though it is not considered to be part of the systemic opposition.

This is not to say that these oppositional figures have had an easy time advocating their political platform; Kasyanov has been ridiculed in state media and was even physically attacked in August. Regardless, their presence suggests the Kremlin is attempting to allow a more diverse opposition without threatening its own power.

OUTLOOK

Putin’s United Russia is expected to lose seats on Sunday as a result of unpopular austerity measures and cuts in social spending. This is likely to result in a net gain for systemic opposition parties such as the Communist Party, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, and A Just Russia. However, fringe parties are not expected to make any substantial inroads into the Duma at the expense of United Russia.

If blatant fraud and resultant large-scale protests are avoided after the election, a more vocal and powerful, but still pro-regime Duma will result. If, however, the elections are perceived as illegitimate and prompt protests, they will likely be met with more authoritarian measures and Russia may very well find itself in a more troubling situation.