Russia’s Duma election. What to expect
Over the past few years, the Russian authorities have been gradually rolling out a strategy for managing the upcoming State Duma election. What are the elements of this strategy, and will it help the Kremlin achieve its objectives? Like most modern authoritarian regimes which organise elections, the regime in Russia aspires to be viewed as broadly legitimate while keeping political pluralism highly constrained. These two objectives, evidently, are difficult to reconcile. In order to increase legitimacy, the regime allows more electoral competition, but at the same time it has an incentive to minimise competition, to which end it resorts to heavy-handed tactics including fraud, undermining its legitimacy.
Electoral authoritarian regimes such as Russia’s employ idiosyncratic strategies to balance the dual objectives of maintaining legitimacy and limiting competition. They thereby face inevitable trade-offs in crafting their strategies and must regularly adapt them to account for changing circumstances. In the previous Duma election of 2011, the authorities sought to bank on the perceived strength of the ruling United Russia party and on the administrative capacity of the authorities (at different levels) to deliver required election results. This strategy had several flaws. Fewer people than anticipated were ready to vote for United Russia. Analyses of the voting results show that in many areas where no major election fraud was committed, only a quarter to a third of votes went to the ruling party. In order to get a (slight) majority of seats in the Duma, major election fraud was necessary. It was met by significant upheaval, mainly in the form of a wave of popular protests that drew the biggest crowds in Russia since the early 1990s. The fallout from the 2011 election was viewed in Russian political circles as a serious crisis.
Since the 2011 election, the regime has adapted its governing strategy to prevent further large displays of opposition and to secure its dominance in elections. Among other things, fines for violations at demonstrations have increased dramatically; bloggers with more than three thousand subscribers are forced to register and comply with media legislation; the legal definitions of slander and of extremism have been broadened to such an extent that many people potentially could be prosecuted for these offenses; and a recently adopted law expands the powers of the FSB to monitor citizens. In addition to the repressive legislation, the prosecution of opposition leaders such as Aleksey Navalny and ordinary citizens such as the Bolotnaya protestors and the members of Pussy Riot has had a chilling effect on oppositional political activity.
While the political climate has become more repressive, a range of measures suggest that the regime aims to extract more legitimacy from the upcoming election than from the previous one, or at least not face the same type of backlash that the it suffered previously. In the 2011 election, the choice on the ballot was limited to the seven political parties that were registered at the time. Since then, the electoral system for national election has been changed back to a mixed one in which half of the members of parliament are elected from single-member districts. This change will give Russians the opportunity to vote for a candidate from their district next to a political party. Many more political parties than in 2011 can now nominate candidates: there are currently some 74 political parties, of which 25 have at least attempted to nominate candidates. Individuals can also run in one of the single-member districts if they have collected a sufficient number of valid signatures. The selection of candidates for the ruling United Russia party was conducted partially based on the results on nationwide primaries, in which millions of party supporters took part. Altogether, the candidates in the upcoming election are supposed to be closer to the people than the many anonymous candidates who were elected to the 2011-2016 Duma.
Another measure taken to avoid some of the backlash from the previous election is the replacement of Central Election Commission chairman Vladimir Churov by politician and activist Ella Pamfilova, who is generally respected among the democratic opposition. While it is unclear to what extent Pamfilova can influence the actual conduct of the election on September 18th, Pamfilova’s declarations since she has taken the office give the impression that she is genuinely interested in running a fraud-free election. There are already indications that the extent of election-day fraud in some of the main urban centers, including Moscow, will be much lower than in 2011. The outpouring of civic protest after the 2011 election in Moscow can be partially explained by the fact many Muscovites had some sense of the election fraud that had been committed in their city. It seems likely that the election in Moscow will at least seem relatively clean, similar to the 2013 mayoral election in which Aleksey Navalny won 27 per cent of the vote.
Whatever the extent of election-day fraud will be, the regime has taken a number of measures in recent years and months to secure a solid majority for United Russia in the new Duma. Chief among these measures has been the return to a mixed electoral system. When the electoral system for national parliamentary elections was changed to a fully proportional system in 2005, the expectation was that United Russia would become a hegemonic force which, not unlike YAP in Azerbaijan or Nur Otan in Kazakhstan, would gain a large majority of seats from election to election. The 2011 election, however, made clear that the project of turning United Russia into a hegemonic party had failed. Under the given circumstances, single-member districts allow the regime to more readily achieve a majority for United Russia. Because of the party’s existing dominance coupled with the heavy abuse of administrative resources by regional authorities in many localities, United Russia will likely win a large majority of the 225 seats that are elected from single-member districts. It then only needs to win a relatively small percentage of the vote in the proportional section of the ballot to secure an overall majority in the Duma.
The regime has engaged in redistricting, or gerrymandering, to make it more likely that United Russia candidates will win the single-member district races: cities with a strong protest potential that previously formed their own districts have now been carved up and their parts merged with rural areas. Another measure that may influence the course of the election concerns the opportunity for people to act as election observers. Much of what we know about fraud in the 2011 election was reported by domestic election observers. It has recently become more difficult to register as an observer, especially if you do not represent a political party, so that there probably will be fewer credible observers in the upcoming election.
While the election may turn out out be relatively fraud-free in Moscow and other places, there will almost certainly still be signifnicant fraud in a range of regions. Large-scale election fraud has been a feature in every post-communist national election in most of the Nothern Caucasus and in regions such as Bashkortostan and Tatarstan. In the past few national elections, regions such as Mordovia and Kemerovo Oblast have joined that group of notorious fraudsters. Habits die hard, so we should again expect turnout and United Russia vote share in the nineties in many districts in these regions.
Overall, the Kremlin’s strategy for the upcoming Duma election seems to be a good bet. United Russia will almost certainly receive a bigger majority of seats than it has had in the 2011-2016 Duma. There will probably be less outcry over election fraud because the election will be cleaner, and look more legitimate, in places where people are more likely to speak out against government misconduct. And even when there will be mass public discontent, the likelihood of large-scale protests is smaller than in 2011-2012 because of the more repressive political climate.
Max Bader is a Lecturer at Leiden University with expertise in Russia and Eurasia (post-Soviet area). In the past he was a lecturer and researcher at the University of Amsterdam, the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, and the OSCE Academy. He was also a visiting scholar at George Washington University and the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.