Russia’s parliamentary elections: More manipulation, more problems

Timothy Frye,
Columbia University,
United States

Russia’s parliamentary elections in September were the least competitive in the Putin era. This is not because United Russia is popular, but because the Kremlin tilted the playing field far more than in past elections.

Over the last 20 years, Russian parliamentary elections have been a mixture of competition and fraud.  Elections in 2003 and 2007 had elements of chicanery, but remained somewhat competitive as the pro-government party rode an economic boom to great success. The poor showing of United Russia in 2011 sparked protests against vote fraud.  In response, the Kremlin put a thumb on the scale in 2016 elections.  But with Russia basking in the glow of the annexation of Crimea, the ruling party won an easy victory and the Kremlin could claim to have generated a degree of honest support.

Elections in 2021 were different. The Kremlin went to greater lengths to limit political competition. It barred many opposition candidates from running for office; closed Aleksei Navalny’s network of regional offices; and banned ten media outlets and targeted 20 journalists in the last six months alone.  The Kremlin ended publicly available livestreams of polling places and the turn to electronic voting increased the scope for fraud.  Even the so-called “systemic opposition” party, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, faced new restrictions. Pavel Grudinin, the CPRF’s candidate for the Presidency in 2018, was barred from running for parliament.

Why the change?  In past elections, the Kremlin could generate some genuine support for United Russia by pointing to economic growth or the wildly popular annexation of Crimea, but is it much harder to do so now.  With living standards stagnant for a decade, high levels of distrust in state institutions, and a shaky response to COVID-19, United Russia’s popularity is at historic lows. Vladimir Putin has usually kept some distance from United Russia, but has been forced to lend his personal popularity to the cause.

But Putin’s popularity is not the game changer it once was.  While Putin’s approval ratings remain in the mid-60s, trust in Putin appears to have fallen.  When asked to name 5 politicians that they trust, two in three Russians named Putin in 2018, but now only in 1 in 3 do so.  In addition, an August 2021 poll by the Levada Center showed that just 18 percent of Russians preferred the current form of government, while 49 percent preferred a version of the Soviet system, and 16 percent preferred a Western-style democracy, and 17 percent found it hard to answer or chose another option.

For autocrats, elections pose a tricky challenge.  Manipulate too little and risk losing an election, but manipulate too much and risk provoking a backlash by those who find the results implausible.  Weakness revealed by heavy handed manipulation is seen not just by the mass public who may take to the streets, as in Belarus last year, but also by potential rivals within the regime who may prefer a change in course.

The Kremlin won a dominant position in the parliament. Even with an approval rating in the high 20s, United Russia still managed a two-thirds majority given the absence of attractive alternatives and an uneven playing field. The broader challenge will be convincing the public and potential elite rivals that the election results reflect something more than Kremlin machinations and indicate broader support among society.  To be sure, not all votes in Russia are manipulated and not all voters are coerced to get to the polls.  But the Kremlin’s heavy-handed tactics reveal a weakness in the Putin regime not seen in past parliamentary elections.

The parliament is an increasingly marginal player and even a poor showing by United Russia was not likely to shake the Kremlin. Putin will likely remain unchallenged in Russian politics and personalist autocrats like Russia’s can remain in power using fraudulent elections and a good dose of repression for years.

But the Kremlin’s turn to greater manipulation reveals a diminished position that has consequences. Cracking down on opponents will not increase trust in government, assuage concerns about corruption, or spark an economic turnaround, but will only make these problems worse. It may even bode ill for Putin as increased repression heightens his dependence on the security services and may limit his room for maneuver on some issues.  It also may embolden usually docile parties like the Communists to test the Kremlin on issues where they have popular support. Finally, it may complicate the already meager chances for better relations with the US as Putin will likely have to guard against even more hawkish elements who have been bolstered by Russia’s more autocratic turn.  United Russia’s “victory” in this election may be less than it seems.

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