The Russians go to the polls from Friday for parliamentary elections, which could serve as a platform for popular anger over the economy, an attack on disagreement and the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. But the ruling United Russia party is likely to find a way to maintain a stranglehold on its control over the State Duma.
While stifling political opposition and independent media, the Kremlin is trying to solve a simple math problem: how can it support the figures in the United Russia, which are at near historic lows, without provoking the kind of protests that broke out over widespread cases of gross voter fraud in 2011.
Before the vote, which will be held over three days, there has been growing support for the Communist Party, while another opposition behind Alexei Navalny, the imprisoned Kremlin critic, has tried to consolidate through a “smart vote” effort that mainly identified communist candidates as the strongest challengers.
“There are a lot of people who are dissatisfied,” said Anastasia Bryukhanova, an independent candidate from one of the country’s most opposition-conscious districts in northwestern Moscow. “The biggest problem is still a lack of faith in our own power, a lack of faith in the election itself. The biggest struggle is getting people out on the ballot box and at least trying to resist. ”
Russia’s Communist Party has seen its poll rise above 19% in recent weeks, mainly due to stagnant wages and rising prices. It has also sought to expand its appeal by picking up younger candidates from the party’s youth wing or putting outsiders in first by post (FPTP) votes in local districts.
But the party has often adapted to the United Russia and is still led by the same leader, Gennady Zyuganov, who ran against Boris Yeltsin in 1996. Although it opposed Vladimir Putin’s proposal to renew his presidency during last year’s constitutional vote, it has often been mocked as a “pocket opposition”.
“Many people say that in their view, the leadership of the Communist Party often compromises … they do not trust them,” Mikhail Lobanov, a candidate for the party in a district in western Moscow, said in a television interview this week. “I think the Communist Party and its leadership should change: it must become more radical, more decisive. Do not give in to the pressure. And then it can return the support of people who have turned away from it. ”
United Russia, meanwhile, has seen its support bottom out, with fewer than 30% of Russians telling state investigators they would vote for the ruling party. To maintain its current constitutional majority (it has 336 out of 450 MPs in the current Duma), the party will rely on winning FPTP districts, an election format that has been expanded to 225 of the Duma’s 450 open seats in recent years.
In Moscow, United Russia has fielded candidates from popular grassroots initiatives, such as Search-and-rescue nonprofit Liza Alert, to attract votes. Putin also signed cash benefits for families and military members ahead of the vote, and local governments are offering prizes such as new apartments, cars and gift cards to those who sign up to vote online.
Top opponents of the government have been jailed, disqualified or run out of the country, including Dmitry Gudkov, a former member of the Duma. It has also sought to split the opposition vote, in some cases running doubles that can suck precious votes off in tight ends. Two opponents of Boris Vishnevsky, a veteran of St. Petersburg who was critical of the Kremlin, even changed his name and appearance to deceive voters on the ballot. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said in an interview.
Past votes, especially in 2011, have been marred by votes and other gross efforts to deliver not just a victory from the United Russia, but a landslide for the ruling party. The biggest change to this year’s poll is that it will take place over three days and also online, maximizing turnout and making it extremely difficult to confirm that the number of ballot papers matches the number of voters. Golos, an election NGO that has been named a foreign agent by the Russian government, has said that only 50% of the country’s territories will have independent monitors.
When all else fails, United Russia will hope for opposition matches to share the protest vote and deliver victory to a friendly candidate.
Bryukhanova, a rare independent of the ballot papers in Russia, was recently backed by Navalny’s intelligent voting system and snubbed yet another liberal candidate from the established, albeit somewhat ineffective, Yabloko party.
“I consider the decision in our district a big mistake,” wrote Marina Litvinovich, her opponent. “But it would be wrong to decide [voters]. If you would support ‘smart voting’, vote for the candidate it proposes. If you want to support me, vote as your heart tells you. ”
Those who make it through will find themselves unsurpassed in the Duma. But Bryukhanova said it was worth it. “First and foremost, it is about symbolism. To show that it is possible. To show that a politician like me with my views … can win in these elections, even with all their violations. ”