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Why Russia’s tightly controlled elections still matter

Russia is constitutionally a democracy, even if in practice it functions as an increasingly repressive autocracy.

By Ido Vock

Russians will go to the polls on Sunday (19 September) for an election that the ruling party, President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia, is certain to win. Voters will be electing a new Duma, the national parliament, as well as local officials in some regions.

The vote is an even more stage-managed affair than usual. Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption campaigner, is imprisoned, his Anti-Corruption Foundation banned and many of its leading figures in exile. Independent media, such as the website Meduza, have been designated “foreign agents”, forcing them to preface every article with a wordy disclaimer outlining alleged foreign links. Even some candidates from the so-called “systemic opposition” – those parties permitted to run for election, which largely support the Kremlin – have been disqualified if deemed too independent-minded.

Boris Vishnevsky, a veteran member of the St Petersburg Legislative Assembly for the liberal Yabloko party, now finds himself running against two other Boris Vishnevskys, whom he accuses of changing their names to confuse the electorate into voting for the wrong candidate. (The other Boris Vishnevskys have grown beards and cut their hair to look virtually identical to the original – a significant detail as the ballot paper includes portraits of the candidates.)

Polling has been limited, in part because the Levada Centre, a respected independent pollster, has been designated a foreign agent. Still, the few indicators that are available suggest the popularity of United Russia is at a historic low. In March, Levada found that just 27 per cent of Russians would vote for the ruling party. Yet the faction is certain to win because of an electoral system which gives a hefty winner’s bonus to the first-placed party. Some ballot stuffing and electoral irregularities are also highly likely.

Even if United Russia retains its majority and none of the “non-systemic opposition” are permitted to run, there is still a degree of electoral competition which provides uncertainty at the margins. Navalny champions “smart voting”, a strategy of encouraging voters to back the candidate most likely to defeat United Russia in single-member constituencies. The strategy is partly credited with losing the ruling party its majority on the city councils of Tomsk last summer.

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An analysis by the political scientists Mikhail Turchenko and Grigorii Golosov from the European University at St Petersburg found that smart voting boosted the score of opposition candidates by an average of about 5 per cent, with scores going up a few points more in cities. The collective endeavour of smart voting, they speculated, provides opposition-minded Russians with a reason to turn out, even though they are unable to vote for their preferred candidate.

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Although the effect of smart voting remains limited, the Kremlin clearly views the strategy as a threat to its narrative of control and dominance, said Ben Noble, a lecturer in Russian politics at UCL. This month, Google and Yandex, a Russian internet search engine, were banned from listing results for the search query “smart voting”. Simultaneously, Roskomnadzor, the Russian media regulator, blocked the smart voting website.

It is not unreasonable to view the elections as a sham exercise unworthy of serious attention, but that would be too simplistic. 

Russia is constitutionally a democracy, even if in practice it functions as an increasingly repressive autocracy. The Duma matters, at least on paper. “Surprising as it may seem, an important part of the legitimacy of the Putin regime is the idea that Russia is a democracy,” Noble said. “A significant proportion of the population do think that they have a meaningful opportunity to express their voice.”

The unlikely prospect of United Russia failing to gain a two-thirds majority in parliament, enough to push through amendments to the constitution, would be a blow to the Kremlin’s pursuit of total hegemony.

Some would-be deputies also see election to the Duma as giving them a platform to use if the Putin regime is ever weakened, from which they might be able to influence the country’s future under a different political system.

However, a post-Putin Russia remains a distant prospect and next weekend’s vote is unlikely to result in any great upset.