Analysis: Reading Between The Lines Of Russia's Duma Elections
September 16, 2016
by Robert Coalson
In a system of "managed" democracy such as Russia's, the importance of elections is not necessarily in their results but in how they are managed.
"We are talking about a test for the entire system that manages the elections," Moscow political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya tells RFE/RL.
That system, Stanovaya says, includes the department of the presidential administration that handles domestic politics, President Vladimir Putin's All-Russia Popular Front (ONF) project, the ruling United Russia party, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, the so-called systemic opposition parties, and more.
"In a nutshell, we are talking about all the institutions that are activated to conduct elections," Stanovaya says. "In such a case, the result is secondary. What is important is how the entire system works, how effective it can be considering the declining incomes of the population, low global energy prices, and many other varied risks."
To understand Russia's September 18 national and local legislative elections, it is necessary to read between the lines.
The Kremlin clearly feels that the last round of Duma elections, in December 2011, and the presidential election in May 2012 were badly mismanaged, both producing credible claims of mass falsification and bringing thousands of protesters into the streets.
This time, the country is mired in an economic crisis stemming largely from low global energy prices and a sanctions standoff with the West over Moscow's forcible annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine. While generally apathetic, would-be voters are also showing less tolerance for United Russia's alleged corruption, and the party's popularity rating has declined steadily in recent months.
As a result, the task of managing elections that outwardly appear as democratic as possible -- to weaken Western resolve on sanctions and to reduce social tensions at home -- is a challenging one.
"We know what instructions the presidential administration gave the governors across Russia: 'No scandals. Nothing that would render the elections unlawful, at least in the big cities," exiled opposition activist and former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who spent a decade in a Russian prison and whose Open Russia movement is backing a handful of candidates, wrote on his website.
"Putin has certainly not become a democrat. His new strategy of making these quasi-elections look like real ones is a deferred reaction to the 2011-12 protests, the result of a desire to avoid additional complications in relations with the West."
The Kremlin has taken a number of steps that seem designed to make this round of elections appear more democratic. Putin replaced former Central Election Commission head Vladimir Churov -- who was sullied by presiding over previous, compromised votes and endorsing flawed elections in other former Soviet countries -- with Ella Pamfilova, a former liberal Duma deputy and minister in the cabinet of President Boris Yeltsin.
In addition, one-half of the 450 deputies this time will be elected from single-mandate districts, with the other half elected from party candidate lists. Moreover, parties need to poll just 5 percent in order to win party-list mandates, down from 7 percent in the previous election. These are reforms that were proposed under then-President Medvedev following the protests of December 2011.
"I would like to say that I have listened to those who have been speaking about the need for changes and I understand them," Medvedev said at the time. "We need to give all active citizens the legal chance to participate in political life."
A total of 14 parties -- including a smattering of genuine opposition parties and Kremlin-manipulated spoiler parties ranging from the far right to the far left -- have been cleared to participate. The Communist Party, the A Just Russia party, and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia -- all of which are represented in the current Duma -- are considered Kremlin-friendly parties that further the appearance of pluralism but regularly vote with the ruling United Russia party.
At the same time, other developments bolster the Kremlin's control over the process and the outcome. The charismatic leaders of the 2011-12 opposition are no longer a factor: Boris Nemtsov was gunned down near the Kremlin in February 2015, and former world chess champion Garry Kasparov has fled the country after receiving death threats.
The respected independent election monitor Golos and the independent Levada Center polling agency have been officially labeled "foreign agents," seriously hampering their work, some of which pointed to a recent decline in the popularity of United Russia.
This weekend's vote was also brought forward from December, a move that opposition figures fear will suppress turnout as many voters may choose to spend one of the last weekends of the summer at their dachas. New election legislation significantly shortens the campaign season, too. Even the usually loyal Communist Party voted in the Duma against these changes.
The legally mandated televised debates were shown on state television at 5:50 p.m., which considerably reduced their audience.
"It is 100 percent certain that the authorities don't want many people to show up," political analyst and former Duma deputy Igor Yakovenko tells RFE/RL, "and it is clear why. Because if more people show up, it will be more difficult to produce the desired result."
Even many of the measures that might first appear to increase democracy actually play into the Kremlin's hands, critics say.
The large number of parties means that even if 20 percent of the vote or more goes to anti-Kremlin parties, it remains likely that none of them will pass the 5 percent hurdle.
The small parties will play the role of "a collective spoiler, gathering about 15 percent altogether but none of them getting more than 1.5 percent individually," political commentator Aleksandr Morozov tells RFE/RL. "Not one of those parties will get into the Duma, and all their mandates will be distributed among the four parties that do. This is an extremely likely scenario."
Although the restoration of the single-mandate districts offers the best hope for genuine opposition voices to appear in the new Duma, it also presents a powerful opportunity for Putin's former party.
The single-mandate districts "give United Russia a perfect chance to compensate for its falling party-list results," analyst Stanovaya says. Many of the ruling party's single-mandate candidates are local officials with close ties to their respective governors, raising the specter of some using administrative resources to secure victories. Stanovaya estimates that even if United Russia polled as low as 40 percent in the party-list voting, it would be able to secure an outright majority of seats by means of the single-mandate districts.
This mixed picture has prompted a sharp debate among Russia's liberal opposition about a perennial question: whether or not to participate in the process at all.
Oppositionist Khodorkovsky says his Open Russia foundation is participating because "the sensible way forward for the real opposition is to make use of all possible opportunities to demonstrate to society that there is an alternative."
But self-exiled opposition figure Kasparov argued earlier this month that any participation helps Putin's government boost its appearance of legitimacy and, by extension, helps legitimize the Kremlin's claim to the annexed Ukrainian region of Crimea.
Those "who go into the elections with the argument that 'we have to at least do something' are giving a priceless gift to the Kremlin and its agents in the West," Kasparov wrote.
"For these elections, I don't see any good strategy," analyst Morozov says. "If you go and vote, you won't get anything. If you don't vote, you won't get anything either and you won't lose anything. Everyone must simply choose for themselves."
With reporting by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondents Mikhail Solokov and Yaroslav Shimov
Copyright (c) 2016. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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