Lessons learned from the 2021 parliamentary election in Russia

Gulnaz Sharafutdinova,
Reader in Russian Politics,
King’s College London,
The United Kingdom

Russia’s latest parliamentary elections held during 17-19 September 2021 turned into yet another chance for the Kremlin to signal to the elites and the Russian population that the political system is fully under the control of the establishment. The years of post-Crimea economic stagnation, declining disposable incomes and rising prices have caused popular frustration reflected, among other things, in the falling support for the party of power.  The pre-election polls showed support levels for United Russia to be under 30%.  Even with such low ratings, the Kremlin was able to ensure the parliamentary super-majority for United Russia. The party of power got 72% or 324 out of 450 seats in the State Duma. Such parliamentary make-up enables the Kremlin to control the legislative process and prevent any independent legislative activity outside the Kremlin’s goals and objectives.  The re-appointment of the old Kremlin cadre, Vyacheslav Volodin, as a speaker in the State Duma, confirmed business-as-usual model at work.

Achieving such a degree of political control over the State Duma was expected by many observers. After all, the Kremlin’s political machine has been years in consolidation. Nonetheless, this process is never automatic. Elections in Russia are always associated with new rules and experimentation as the Kremlin probes new instruments and policies to obtain the results the authorities want. So in the end, the results reveal what works and what does not. Particularly useful innovations are adapted for the next electoral cycle. Thus, during the Constitutional Amendments voting in summer 2020 using the pretext of the pandemic the authorities instituted a voting period that lasted one week. Longer electoral process allowed for a more extensive use of administrative resources at various levels, including the direct pressure on voters at the workplace to increase the turnout and vote from the loyalist (i.e. more state-dependent) groups in the population. Not surprisingly, the prolongation of the day of election occurred during this 2021 electoral season as well: elections were held over the period of three days, instead of a usual one-day slot. The administrative pressure to vote at the workplace was also reported to be especially intense this electoral cycle.

Unlike previous elections, this election brought much attention to the electronic voting system that was used in Moscow and seven other federal subjects of the Russian Federation. The doubts about the results of electronic voting system started with the many hour delay in the publication of these results. Furthermore, once the results were published, it became evident that these results worked to overturn the victories by political opposition candidates.  Driven by rising concerns over potential fraud observers and data experts started an investigation of the data that could be obtained from the electronic voting portal. Different teams engaged in this process produced several interesting observations and hypotheses as to the nature of the electoral fraud that seems to have taken place in the process of electronic voting. As with usual electoral fraud that is frequently identified based on data irregularities, the awkward patterns found in relation to voter turnout in the electronic system, and the pace of voting across different time periods have been interpreted as likely indications of fraud.  Many observers also noted the non-transparent nature of a ‘re-vote’ opportunity allowed in electronic voting under the pretext of allowing voters to change their votes in cases the vote was taken under the direct pressure. Apparently, this opportunity was used en masse but the system does not allow to identify which of the votes was in the end taken into account.

Despite these widespread doubts emerging out of the inability to fully monitor and verify the results of the electronic voting, the Russian authorities have declared that the electronic voting worked well. It is very likely that this technological innovation would be applied in future electoral cycles.

The success of the political establishment in getting the results it wanted notwithstanding, this election revealed a high potential for the political engagement of the opposition-supporting voters who followed the smart voting strategy promoted by the team of Alexei Navalny. While the followers of this strategy are mostly urbanites living in large cities, the technology-enabled potential for this strategy to spread across larger social groups in Russia is still untapped. The fact that the Russian government had to pressure Google and Apple companies to close access to smart voting platforms signals that the disruptive potential of this strategy is well-recognized by the authorities. Another optimistic moment of this election from the societal perspective is the success of grassroots political engagement strategies by younger activists who want to enter politics. While the protest potential in Russia remains rather low, with each electoral cycle we observe a growing political and civic engagement on the part of the younger generations.

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