Russian officials are working to make sure that Sunday’s parliamentary elections aren’t a replay of the last such vote, in 2011.
That election triggered protests in which tens of thousands of Russians cried out against allegations of widespread vote-rigging and fraud. It was the biggest challenge to President Vladimir Putin, who has now been either president or prime minister for the past 17 years.
Analysts are predicting that this balloting will result in a lower house of parliament that’s just as willing as the current one to rubber-stamp Kremlin directives, but with less need for the authorities to manipulate the vote.
That’s because the competition was eliminated before the campaign even started.
On the surface, this election has a lot of the familiar ballyhoo of political campaigns anywhere — billboards with the candidates’ earnest faces and encouraging slogans. TV and radio channels carry campaign ads for the 14 parties in the running this year, from the liberal-democratic Peoples’ Freedom Party, or PARNAS, to the still-active Communist Party.
The parties are competing for 450 seats in the national parliament, but few people doubt that the ruling United Russia Party will take the overwhelming majority.
A typical ad for United Russia features President Vladimir Putin promising to listen to the people, along with the slogan “We can do it — United Russia.”
United Russia dominates the current Duma, with 53 percent of the seats. The rest are divided among three other parties — Communists, socialists and a hard-right nationalist party. They’re known as the “systemic” opposition, because even though they may criticize the government for being “too capitalistic” or “too willing to compromise with the West,” they vote with the Kremlin on all important issues, such as the repressive anti-extremism laws that were passed this summer.
Political analyst Alexander Kynev says the reason the ruling party is in such a commanding position is that it has already eliminated most of its real opposition.
“The main peculiarity of this election is that many candidates have simply been deprived of the right to run,” he says.
As an example, Kynev points out that the election laws ban people from running if they’ve been convicted of serious crimes. Conveniently, some key opposition leaders, such as Alexei Navalny, have been convicted on what their supporters say are trumped-up charges, so they’re not allowed to run.
Navalny was convicted of embezzlement in 2013, a verdict that the European Court of Human Rights denounced as “an arbitrary application of the law.”
Even when opposition candidates can run, Kynev says, the ruling party has changed election rules to make it easier to manipulate the balloting.
In the past, he says, election observers could show up at any polling place unannounced. Now, the law says the observers have to notify the election authorities at least three days before the vote.
“The authorities will know in advance where the observers will be and where they won’t be,” Kynev says. “That makes it easy to choose where they can allow falsifications without any witnesses.”
With little real competition, some opposition leaders say these elections will be downright boring. But not everyone agrees.
“All Russian elections are boring, in the sense that power does not change hands, so you know the winner,” says Boris Makarenko, head of the Center for Political Technologies, a think tank in Moscow.
But Makarenko says the elections still have an important function as a public ritual that legitimizes the government and gives voters the sense that their voices are being heard.
These elections will also have a new wrinkle. The last time around, Russians voted for party lists, and the parties appointed their deputies. This time, half the deputies in parliament will be directly elected from their districts.
Makarenko says that represents an important change in the quality of the candidates. “We’ll see candidates who at this time appear as loyal to the regime as the incumbent members of parliament, but who are more vocal, more open and better communicators.”
These new deputies, Makarenko thinks, will be more accountable to their constituents and thus more resistant to voting for unpopular legislation, more likely to try to negotiate better deals for their regions.
Does that mean that the Kremlin will be giving up some control over the legislature?
Probably not. On matters that count, the newly elected Duma is expected to be just as loyal as ever to Putin.