Election Duma elections in Russia

In the short term it seems reasonable to assume that Putin wants to win the presidential elections in early March by an absolute majority in the first round. The election campaign will be a first pointer to where Russia is heading.

Published on balticworlds.com on december 26, 2011

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On December 4th millions of Russians went to cast their ballot one of the seven parties that were allowed to participate in the Duma elections. The outcome did not present any major surprises. United Russia (Yedinaia Rossiia), the party of power in today’s Russia, retained the majority of seats (238 out of 450) with 49.32 per cent of the votes. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation (Kommunisticheskaia Partia Rossiiskoi Federatsii) was the runner up, followed by Fair Russia (Spravedlivaia Rossiia) and the Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR). The other three participating parties, Patriots of Russia (Patrioty Rossii), Yabloko, and the Right Cause (Pravoe Delo), did not make it above the seven per cent threshold[1] to the parliament.

This would most probably be regarded as a landslide victory in almost any country with a proportional election system. However, this election result – United Russia loosing around 15 per cent of its support despite tremendous control over the elections – and the by Russian standards large-scale protests following the accusations of election fraud, reflects a growing discontent with the current leadership at large, and perhaps more generally (and more seriously), a growing gap between the growing middle class in larger cities, on the one hand, and the elite, on the other.

Since the opposition is fairly unorganised and divided, it can challenge neither the hegemony of Putin himself, nor the Putin political paradigm. As a result voters have no viable political alternative. United Russia will therefore remain the major political force in the foreseeable future. The central question, then, is what kind of policies the government will conduct in order to regain legitimacy, or whether it will hold on to power by other means, and what consequences this will have for the Russian political and social landscape. In the short term it seems reasonable to assume that Putin wants to win the presidential elections in early March by an absolute majority in the first round. The election campaign will be a first pointer to where Russia is heading.  

The campaign

The Duma election campaign has been dominated by economic issues, and the question what party is able to bring Russia out of the global economic turmoil. Indeed, following the financial crises of 2008 and the current economic turmoil, economic matters occupy people’s minds. At the end of October 2011 43 per cent of Russians believed that the country will not get over the economic and financial crisis anytime soon. 53 per cent are expecting another bank crisis in the near future (VCIOM). At the same time more people than ever before have savings in the bank (34 per cent). In September Russians stated that the most worrying issues are inflation (53%), housing and communal services sector (52%) and low living standards (51%) (VCIOM). Hence, taking Russia out of the crisis is something that the growing middle class will lose sleep over in the years to come. At the same time the government’s ability to provide economic and political stability, which has been considered Putin’s strong suit in the last decade, is now being questioned. The general trust and support for Putin has decreased from a steady 50 per cent or more throughout the 2000s to around 35 per cent in October 2011. The trust in President Medvedev is even lower (27 per cent) (www.levada.ru). However, the trust for United Russia has generally been even lower than for Putin and Medvedev personally, but its support has decreased rapidly in the last years from its heydays in 2007 when the party received almost 65 per cent in the Duma elections.

During this year’s election campaign United Russia’s campaign was designed to convince the public that the party was the only political force that could keep Russia out of further economic trouble. Stability and order have remained the core value of the Putin political paradigm. The party’s election programme enumerate the political, economic, and social challenges that have been overcome thanks to the party, and the future tasks that only United Russia is credible to fulfil. Election posters and TV-commercials reflected the same message. In one of United Russia’s TV-commercials a woman working on a farm says: ‘It used to be really bad. The farms shut down. People started to eat foreign products. No one needed us for many years. It turned out you had to bring order in the country. Now we can work and make money here in the village. I support those who brought order to the country, Medvedev and Putin. Let them work’.

The ambition to depict the incumbent government as the most reliable political alternative reflected quite normal party politics. However, this message appeared to sound increasingly hollow in the ears of Russian voters. There were signs that the support for United Russia and for the Putin-Medvedev tandem was waning already during the election campaign. One important reason seems to be the declaration in September that Putin and Medvedev once again would swap places. In fact, Putin announced quite bluntly that Medvedev only had kept his seat warm. It seems that Putin was so convinced of his political dominance that he even care to uphold the façade of political competition. He might have overestimated his popularity, however. His statement evoked protest not only among the opposition, but evidently also a negative response among the general public.

During the fall Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has personally encountered popular dissatisfaction in a more or less unprecedented manner when he was booed at during a marshal arts competition just a couple of weeks before the elections. A few days later parliamentarians representing the KPRF and Fair Russia for the first time in many years refused to rise when the Prime Minister entered the chamber. Newspapers, even those usually loyal to the Kremlin, have been bolder in the reporting. The criticism and mockery of the party on the net among bloggers and on social fora has been fierce. It was a well-known blogger, Aleksei Navalny, who labelled United Russia as “the party of swindlers and thieves”, which stuck to and stigmatised the party throughout the election campaign.

The Election

However, Russian voters did not mobilise during the election campaign. The election turnout was quite normal by Russian standards: 60 per cent. This can be compared to the election in 2003 that had a 56 per cent turnout, and the 2007 elections with 63 per cent (Russian Central Election Commission). The growing discontent with United Russia and the Putin-Medvedev tandem did not lead to any political commotion at this point. Yet, in the absence of credible alternatives to United Russia, voters turned to KPRF and Fair Russia. Both KPRF and Fair Russia are strongly left-wing parties, although the latter is less conservative than the former. KPRF has also in the recent decade developed nationalist traits. LDPR is however the most nationalistic party with its leader, Vladimir Zhirinovskii, who often makes very harsh statements about almost anything and anyone. In a way the political alternatives to United Russia are more conservative and nationalistic. However, the increasing support for these parties should probably not be seen as an ideological turn among Russian voters. Ideology does not play a major role in today’s Russia. Rather, it is more likely that this voting behaviour represents mainly a vote of non-confidence for United Russia, and to some degree also for the Putin-Medvedev tandem.

In table 1 we can see the final result of the Duma election.

Results Duma Elections 2011

Party Per cent of votes (2007 results) Trend Number of seats (2007 results)
United Russia 49.32 % (64.3 %) -14.98 % 238 (315)
KPRF 19.19 % (11.57 %) +7.62 % 92 (57)
Fair Russia 13.24 % (7.74 %) +5.5 % 64 (38)
LDPR 11.67 % (8.14) +3.53 % 56 (40)
Yabloko 3.43 % (1.59 %) +1.84 %
Patriots of Russia 0.97 %
The Right Cause 0.60 %
Source: Central Election Commission of the Russian Federation

The same four parties remained in parliament. Only the proportion between them changed as KPRF and Fair Russia, and to a lesser extent LDPR, gained some terrain at United Russia’s expense.       

There are obvious regional patterns of votes. United Russia received the strongest support in the Southern parts of European Russia, the Caucasus and Siberia. Its smallest share of the votes was in Central and Northwestern Russia where it received around 30 per cent of the votes. KPRF still retains its traditional stronghold in the so-called “Red Belt” that stretches from the Briansk-region in the West to the Irkutsk-region in the East. Here it received 25-30 per cent on average. The party was, as usual, weaker in the Caucasus, Siberia, and the Far East where its support amounted to only 5-10 per cent on average. These are the areas where LDPR has the strongest support, receiving between 15-20 per cent of the votes. Fair Russia had success mainly where United Russia failed, in the Northwest and Central Russia. In regions such as Novgorod, Vologda, Leningrad and Sverdlovsk it received as much as 25 per cent of the votes or more. It fared worse in large parts of the Red Belt and the Caucasus where only 5-10 per cent of the votes were casted on Fair Russia. Yabloko, the only liberal party with some stable support, still retains its stronghold in Saint Petersburg (11.58 per cent) and other large urban centres (8.55 per cent in Moscow City, and 6.09 per cent in the Moscow region). However, at the national level liberal parties, such as Yabloko and Just Cause, gets only a few per cent of the votes (Central Election Commission of the Russian Federation).

It is interesting to note that not in one of the regions that hold the largest urban centres (Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Novosibirsk, Nizhnii Novgorod, Yekaterinburg, and Samara) did United Russia attain the majority of votes in the national elections. Rather, if KPRF and Fair Russia would join forces as a joint opposition, which they promised throughout the campaign, they would attain majority or be almost equal to United Russia in all cases except Moscow. The same relation can be observed in the Red Belt. This might convince KPRF and Fair Russia that forming an opposition to United Russia is actually plausible.

It thus seems that United Russia and the Medvedev-Putin tandem are loosing support both among the middle class living in the larger cities, and among voters who traditionally have left-wing sympathies, yet for different reasons. One might hypothesise that the middle class has a sense of political and social stagnation. Having become used to positive economic development since 1999 they may now face unemployment and the risk of losing savings. At the same time the population in the rural and more undeveloped areas of the Red Belt has fared much worse. Due to the financial and economic crisis financial support is no longer trickling down from Moscow to the same extent as before. This growing political dissatisfaction of both groups is probably viewed with some unease from Kremlin. This alleged unease might also explain why this year’s Duma election was marked by more, and more blunt, irregularities than previous elections.                                    

Election Fraud

Cases of election fraud had been reported early on in the election campaign. After the election the reports quickly multiplied. In some cases the fraud was almost irrefutable in all its blatancy. In many regions in the Southern Caucasus the turnout was very high. In Chechnya it was as high as 93.31 per cent. The support for United Russia was a staggering 99.48 per cent! Indeed there appears to be a correlation between election turnout and support for United Russia. The anonymous Russian blogger Podmoskovnik (see http://podmoskovnik.livejournal.com/), who has made calculations of official election statistics for several years, has shown that this correlation exists only in the case of United Russia. Normally a higher turnout would not change the distribution of votes in this dramatic way, but would be scattered proportionally by each party. Podmoskovnik did also show, based on the reports of regional election commissions, that the support of United Russia does not form a normal curve with one peak and then a slope towards zero. Instead United Russia’s support starts to drop at around 40 per cent of the votes, and then suddenly peaks at 50 per cent. It then continues to drop only to peak again at 55 per cent, and at 60, 65, 70 per cent, and so on. The curve ends with an even greater peak as many election commissions reported that 100 per cent of the voters casted their vote on United Russia. There are no such relations for the other parties. This phenomenon is very difficult to explain by normal voting behaviour. Rather, to put it mildly it seems to indicate that some election commissions feel the need to report certain figures.

Indeed, the results of the elections have been questioned by international organisations. OSCE reported irregularities both during the campaign and the election day. Political competition was compromised, as several parties were not allowed to register. There was also lack of independence of the election administration, partial media coverage, and local authorities sometimes obstructed the campaign of other parties than United Russia. During the election the counting of votes was in several cases manipulated (OSCE report, 5 December 2011). The Russian non-governmental organisation Golos (meaning voice or vote), which monitors Russian elections, reported similar problems. In the regional parliamentary elections, which took place at the same day, the irregularities were even more frequent. Altogether Golos received over five thousand complaints (see www.golos.org).

Some Russian media also reported about the workings of so-called administrative resources to manipulate the elections. In the town of Izhevsk (the capital of the region of Udmurtia Republic), the Mayor Denis Agashin offered money to a local veteran organisation in exchange for votes on United Russia. Getting caught on tape he straightforwardly stated that ‘we are ready to support your organisation and turn to the republican level for help with this, but without votes for United Russia it will not be possible.’ When a person says that he is breaking the law by saying this, he simply replies that since he is the secretary of United Russia in the region and was elected by the city parliament by 75 per cent he has the moral right to make such propositions. The proposition was simple. 51 per cent of the votes on United Russia would not change the budget for the organisation, 51-54 per cent would render 500,000 roubles, 55-59 per cent 700,000 roubles, and over 60 per cent of the votes would give 1,000,000 roubles (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2G3_xxtxBKI if you want to see this recording with English subtitles).      

There were also ample testimonies on the internet of various kinds of election fraud. One common phenomenon appeared to be so-called “karusel´noe golosovanie” (“carousel voting”) through which voters are taken by bus to several ballot stations to cast their vote on United Russia. Naturally these people cannot be registered in all these places. However, they are allowed to vote without registration, which requires the cooperation of the local election commission. In this way the same person may cast several votes on United Russia. Another form of election fraud that has been reported is that invalid ballot-papers are accounted to United Russia.        

All in all the quantity and bluntness of the election frauds appears to indicate a certain degree of desperation of the current political leadership. This desperation is paralleled by increasing opposition. At the elite level there is a growing number of politicians who used to work for or cooperate with Putin, but who are now in some kind of opposition: former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasianov, former presidential advisor Andrei Illarionov, and the recently fired Minister of Finance Aleksei Kudrin, who has announced that he is forming a new oppositional party.

The growing opposition is not least noticeable at the population level and in the public sphere more generally. The current degree of political mobilization is unusual for Russia. On the 10th of December tens of thousands demonstrated on the streets of Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and other major cities in the biggest anti-Kremlin protests since the 1990s. It was followed by more demonstrations. Although these are limited numbers in a populous country such as Russia they may nonetheless indicate a new scale of protests. In particular the internet is flooded with criticism and political satire from the man on the street, and with more radical criticism from both left and right. Regime critique has even become a selling point in TV-commercials. TV-shows of various kinds also express more or less explicit criticism of the elections as well as of the current leadership.

Conclusions – Voice or Exit

Being much more important than the Duma elections the presidential elections in early March will be a first indicator of where Russia is heading in the short term. How will the current political situation influence the election campaign and the behaviour of Vladimir Putin as the main contender? Will he be seriously challenged by the other candidates, among whom Sergei Mironov (Fair Russia), Gennadii Ziuganov (KPRF), Vladimir Zhirinovskii (LDPR), Gregorii Yavlinskii (Yabloko), and Mikhail Prokhorov (oligarkh, owner of Norilsk Nickel, and former leader of the party the Right Cause) are the most well known?

Putin will most likely win the elections. The political base of the other candidates is simply too weak. He will however be eager to show that he has not lost the confidence of the Russian people and some effort will probably be made in order to secure victory already in the first round. He might therefore resort to more populist policies, being prepared to increase public spending and trying to find internal and external enemies in order to consolidate his own political position. Some signs of this are already noticeable. The sacking of Minister of Finance Aleksei Kudrin, who conducted a very restrictive economic policy, has paved the way for a more generous economic policy. This policy may build some electoral support in the short term in times of growing unemployment. Moreover, anti-West rhetoric appears to increase. Putin’s reaction to Hillary Clinton’s (U.S. Secretary of State) critique of the Duma elections was very harsh, depicting her statement as an attempt to spur subversive demonstrations and as interference in the internal affairs of Russia. That kind of rhetoric will not encounter resistance in today’s Russian political landscape. Putin might indeed attempt to play the nationalist card. He might also point out some ethnic groups inside Russia as a threat, which might touch the right chord among some voters, thereby taking the edge of some part of the xenophobic opposition (Aleksei Navalny, and LDPR). However, using the West as the main “other” is a more probable alternative since ethnic strive would endanger internal stability.    

Whether Putin will be able to appease the current protest remains to be seen. It is clear that the growing political and economic dissatisfaction among the middle class. This constitutes a viable threat to Putin’s political position. It cannot be excluded that the state will resort to harder repression in terms of even stricter control of the internet, NGOs, and the media. This path is dangerous, however, since repression might lead to more repression in a slippery slope fashion. This kind of vicious circle would most likely hamper the economic development and weaken Russia’s political stature internationally. It would also widen the already present gap between the elite and the people with growing tensions, political unrest, and brain drain as a probable result. The growing Russian middle class will either voice or exit.

In what direction the pendulum will swing, towards liberalisation or authoritarianism, might thus have long-term implications for Russia’s development in that it has bearing on structural challenges that go beyond presidential elections and elite politics. One of the most profound problems that Russia is facing is the demographic situation with low fertility, high mortality, and emigration. If the middle class chooses to voice their dissatisfaction and the answer is repression, it will most likely have very negative economic consequences. In the long-term this will negatively affect population growth. If the middle class chooses exit it will lead to drain brain with a similar negative effect. Either way the Putin-Medvedev tandem will have a thorny road ahead of them.


  1. As of the Duma elections in 2016 the threshold will be reduced to five per cent.
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