Putin’s gamble on Russia’s Duma elections

Commentary

Putin has sought to improve the apparent transparency of the electoral process while simultaneously strengthening the chance of a United Russia win. But pulling the election date forward delivers a short term benefit at the expense of longer term risk.

The forthcoming Duma elections are the first of the new, post-Crimean annexation era and the first elections since 2003 to use the mixed electoral system. They also provide an important opportunity to jump-start Russia’s stalled political modernisation process. So why are they so boring to watch? Because after years of Vladimir Putin’s ruling United Russia party, neither the campaign nor the election result is going to surprise anyone.

This year, the upcoming Duma elections have been inexplicably moved from December to September – a move that has led the Communist party to raise an appeal to the Constitutional court. The government offered the reasoning that elections should be moved so that they are in line with the budgetary process, but few people bought this explanation. Russian law dictates that any decree to shorten the campaigning period by moving the election date forward must be signed 90-110 days before election day. Putin passed this decree at the very last minute – just 92 days prior to the day of the vote.

This means that the 2016 elections will be the first time in Russia’s post-Soviet history that the parliamentary and presidential elections will not immediately follow each other . Instead, the presidential elections will take place in March 2018, some 18 months in the future.

The new rules of the game

Despite Russia’s recent clampdowns on dissenting voices and organisations, the number of political parties has increased tenfold since the previous election in 2011 – from seven to 74. However, only 14 of them will be able to participate in the September elections, and it is still only the “Big Four” (United Russia, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), the Just Russia party, and the Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR)) that have any real chance of surpassing the five percent threshold required to win any seats in the Duma.

Due to restrictive electoral legislation, only a handful of the largest and most well-established parties are allowed to automatically register their candidates for the Duma elections. Other smaller parties must gather 200,000 signatures of support in at least 29 regions across the country, or the signatures of three percent of voters in any given district – a task that is tricky, costly, and purposefully designed by the authorities to remove undesirable candidates from the race. The shortening of the campaigning period makes this process even more challenging, to the advantage of the larger, established parties.

Preparing for the big day

While the short campaigning period may make it more difficult for smaller parties, the Kremlin has made an effort to improve public faith in the Central Electoral Commission (CEC), which organises the elections. The former head of the organization, Vladimir Churov, – an old crony of Putin’s during his time as Mayor of Saint Petersburg who was associated with election fraud in 2011 – has been replaced with a less tainted figure. Under its new head, Ella Pamfilova, Russia’s former human rights ombudsman, the CEC has adopted a more transparent approach to supervising the elections, and has replaced other officials that might bring the legitimacy and objectivity of the CEC into question.

The Kremlin has a vested interested in making sure that no large scale fraud takes place this time around, given fears that it could trigger mass protests, the likes of which were seen after the last Duma elections in 2011. In fact, the capacity for organising any large scale fraud in Russia has diminished significantly following the dismissal or arrest of elites who previously conspired to fix the result.

The CEC may have enhanced its transparency but there will be far fewer independent election observers this year as a result of persistent government pressure on election-monitoring NGOs, such as Golos. The government has therefore been able to secure itself against an independent vote count. The government has taken further measures to bar unwelcome figures - such as activist Alexei Navalny - from participating in the election. And just two weeks before the vote, independent polling agency Levada Center was blacklisted as a ‘foreign agent’, allegedly related to its poll showing waning support for United Russia.

Riding a wave of popularity

Putin’s post-Crimea popularity is still very high, and compared to the domestic situation on the eve of the 2011 elections United Russia is in a much stronger position, even despite a largely unpopular cabinet. However there are a few key factors that might pose a problem for the party: the regional candidates are generally weak, the socio-economic situation has declined since 2011, and the government and people still have strong memories of the protests that took place around the last elections.

The government appears confident this time that it will achieve the desired result – another United Russia win - but it prefers to ruffle as few feathers as possible by keeping election turnout low and avoiding any public scandals that could lead to an uprising.

The petal arrangement

The Kremlin’s reforms stretch further than just improving the transparency of the CEC. In October 2015 the State Duma approved the redistricting of constituencies to reflect shifts in population from region to region. The changes also factor in the new federal region of Crimea, which will have one district for Sevastopol and three districts across the rest of the peninsula.

The goal of redistricting is to harness control over the vote by diluting the more critically-minded urban constituencies with the better disciplined rural electorate. The government has sought to do this by using the so-called “petal arrangement”, which means that the regions are cut into districts like pieces of cake, and portions of the urban centre are merged with huge rural sectors stretching all the way to the region’s border - sometimes for two or three hundred kilometres.

This technique has been applied to at least 130 districts out of a total 225. Not only is it difficult to campaign in such elongated districts that are often poorly connected, but it is hard to represent a highly heterogeneous electorate in parliament too. This radical redistricting operation will result in large parts of the population – mainly urban dwellers - being under-represented by the Duma given that 20 percent of voters, usually the most liberal and critical, reside in urban centres.

Predicting the results

The United Russia party has candidates in all but 18 of the 225 electoral districts, and is set to win the majority of the vote across the country. In those remaining districts the CPRF, LDPR, and the Just Russia party will battle it out with a couple of other minor parties.

It is unlikely that there will be any qualitative shifts in the composition of the Duma. There are likely to be some quantitative shifts, but the status quo will likely prevail, with the four main parties winning representation and United Russia in front.

Indeed, Putin’s United Russia party will probably grow, and even has a chance of obtaining a qualified majority of two thirds. The Communist party will most likely receive about the same number of votes as last time while the Just Russia party and LDPR will likely see a decrease in the number of deputies to offset the gains by United Russia.

Of the other political parties,  Yabloko, Rodina, and the Patriots of Russia have a small chance of securing one or two seats. Turnout will be of critical importance to the results and, if it is higher than expected, the vote may shift a little more in favour of smaller parties. However, even if three or four new parties win minor representation in the State Duma, it won’t significantly alter the system.

The only thing that can change the system is the election of Duma deputies who represent not just the interests of party bosses, but also of regional political and business elites, who play an important role in Russian politics. As the political and financial world in Russia becomes more closely intertwined, the corporate composition of deputies will also change in the Duma.

According to preliminary estimates up to 70 United Russia deputies will also be representatives of large federal and regional businesses. These deputies will represent Russia alongside the “social-budgetary” group that will be made up of between 35 and 45 teachers, doctors, university presidents, low-level bureaucrats and trade union representatives, and a further 30 mayoral deputies, and 15-20 governor representatives. This means that approximately half of United Russia’s representatives will represent large corporate interests.

This means that deputies of the new Duma will have more complex loyalties and a more sophisticated relationship with the Kremlin. The new Duma may therefore be more similar to that of 2011 in composition, but more like the Duma of 2003 in behaviour. However, the Kremlin’s coffers are looking rather more empty today, meaning that it won’t be able to barter with deputies as it did in the mid-2000s.

All of these developments in the run up to the Duma elections point towards a carefully calculated yet reactive political modernisation. Putin has sought to create the perfect conditions to improve the transparency of the electoral process, while simultaneously strengthening the chance of a United Russia win. By introducing a modicum of harmless political competition the chances of an uprising can be minimised.

The rocky road ahead

United Russia are again set to win in the upcoming elections, but what comes next is less certain. The reasons for calling an early election are the cause of much discussion, but there are a number of theories.

The most widespread explanation for the early elections is that bringing the date forward serves the dual purpose of minimising the time in which more critically-minded constituencies of large urban centres can mobilise, and ensuring relatively low turnout across the board – factors that play in favour of United Russia.

Another explanation is that the next budget to be approved by the Duma in the fall is likely to cause public discontent because of inevitable cuts to social welfare, pensions, or military expenditure, so it makes sense to win votes now, before unpopular decisions have to be taken.

However, the Kremlin may have tied its own hands by bringing the elections forward. Any unpopular reforms passed in the interim 18 months between the Duma and presidential elections will negatively impact the ability of Putin to cling on to power in the presidentials.

It might impossible for United Russia to shy away from making such unpopular reforms. Russia’s economic situation is dire and there is a real risk that the state could run out of money before the scheduled presidential elections. The only ways of side-stepping this problem involve either calling an early presidential election, or making a humiliating and unpopular foreign policy “u-turn” by engaging with the West to borrow money and buy some time.

Neither option is particularly attractive, yet preparations are ongoing for both. In this sense, it’s not the Duma elections that the Kremlin needs to worry about, so much as what comes after. High inflation, an ailing economy and international isolation make the domestic climate ripe for another uprising should the elites fall out of favour with the people. The Kremlin is walking a tightrope, and pulling the Duma election date forward delivers a short term benefit at the expense of longer term risk.

If the outcome of the Duma elections is more or less certain, how the Kremlin deals with the yawning gap between them and the presidentials is quite the opposite.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

Read more on: Wider Europe, Russia

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