A supporter of United Russia handing out leaflets in the street

A supporter of United Russia handing out leaflets in the street

Election The 2016 Russian elections. postponing the future

The outcome of the 2016 Duma elections further consolidates the Russian authoritarian system. The changes in the electoral legislation resulting in the reintroduction of the mixed voting system could, in theory, have helped open up the system to other parties. This did not prove to be the case, however, as it instead favoured Putin’s current constellation of power.

Published on balticworlds.com on oktober 8, 2016

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The Russian elections of 2016 are over and their outcome was as expected. The pro-regime party United Russia became the largest party in the newly elected federal parliament (Duma), in the regional parliaments, and among the governors, though the Duma results were not as good for the party as at its peak popularity in 2007. These results are better than those of the 2011 election and, thanks to recent changes in Duma electoral legislation, United Russia was again guaranteed the qualified majority required for changing constitutional laws. It had such a majority in 2007 but lost it in 2011.

The Putin majority has thus been guaranteed for another five years, which will make his re-election as president in spring 2018 much easier. The elections demonstrated that the regime has been successful in its efforts to freeze the present power constellation. However, by ignoring signs of popular discontent and calls for serious reforms, the regime is treading a dangerous path. It is postponing fundamental changes that will inevitably come. The turnout for the 2016 vote was 16 per cent lower than in 2011 (i.e. 47.8 per cent compared with 64.4 per cent), and in Moscow the turnout was as low as 35 per cent and in Petersburg 32 per cent. These low figures cannot be explained solely by the new early election date that did not give the parties enough time to mobilize the electorate. These low figures also reflect a general political apathy. Moreover, the government’s harshest critics, the democratic liberal parties, have by now been marginalized to such an extent that they won only a few per cent of the votes in the election to the Duma. However, there are large regional differences in their support, the strongest usually being found in the large cities. The embryo of a protest movement still exists.

The changes in the electoral system and the manipulation of the party system over the years since the 2011 election demonstrate the regime’s deep-seated fear of losing control in a Russian Maidan scenario. A solid victory for United Russia therefore had to be secured by all possible means, including by the use of so-called administrative resources. New components were therefore added. The primary architect of these innovations is Vyacheslav Volodin of the Presidential Administration. He has fine-tuned a system for the new era, when the leader of the country is recognized as the major decision-maker standing above all competition, who needs to secure his apparatus of power for the future. The paradox is that the regime, though bolstered by the “Crimea Consensus” (i.e. the “consolidation around the president” since the Russian annexation of Crimea), still fears that popular discontent will explode due to the country’s economic difficulties.

This article discusses a) the outcome of the elections to the federal Duma, b) the changes in electoral legislation and the party system before the 2016 elections, and c) how these changes have altered the foundation of the Russian political system as we have known it so far.

The election outcome

Like the citizens of most countries, ordinary Russians’ main concerns are related to their immediate life conditions. In Russia, citizens have ample reason to worry, since most analyses point in the direction of very bleak economic developments. To any citizen, issues such as pensions, housing, community services, transport, energy, healthcare, education, taxes, and tariffs are paramount. However, these issues do not result in political debates in which alternatives to the present government and its policies are raised. Russian elections are not about the real substance of politics. Government policies are the president’s policies, and the next presidential election does not take place until spring 2018. Moreover, government policies are Putin’s policies. His “May directives” at the time of his inauguration became the government platform. The loyal opposition parties of the Duma may question individual aspects of government policy, but they never criticize its policy as a whole and they present no policy alternatives. They instead consider themselves those most fit to implement the President’s directives. In the “Crimea Consensus”, no party in the Duma questions the president. Those who dare to do so belong to the “non-systemic” opposition and are marginalized to such an extent that they are effectively locked out of participating in everyday politics.

For the 2016 Duma elections, a mixed voting system was reintroduced and the party threshold was lowered to five per cent. Half of the 450 members of the Duma are elected based on voting for parties, the seats being distributed proportionately, while the other half of the Duma is elected in single-member constituencies. This system existed from 1993 to 2003 but was abandoned for the 2007 and 2011 elections when only party voting in a proportional distribution of mandates remained.

In 2016 the United Russia Party received 54.19 per cent of the party vote, which gave it about 140 seats in the Duma, and 203 seats of 225 representing single-member constituencies. With 343 seats, United Russia controls 76.2 per cent of the Duma, more than the two-thirds majority required for changing constitutional laws. In the large cities the support for United Russia was much lower; for example, in Moscow it was only 37.3 per cent.

The loyal opposition of the Duma consists, as previously, of the same three parties, ranked in the same order as before. The Communist Party (CP), under its leader Gennadii Zyuganov, is the largest opposition party, although it now has been reduced almost to the size of the third party, the Liberal Democratic Party. Communist support has declined considerably since 2011, when it received protest votes against United Russia: the Communists received 13.3 per cent of the popular vote in 2016 compared with 19.2 per cent in 2011. In 2016, the Communists won 35 mandates from the party vote plus seven mandates from the single-member constituency vote, for 42 seats altogether. The Communists have a solid core of loyal voters but have difficulties expanding beyond this core group. The party has undergone no reforms and therefore remains very much the party of old Soviet times. This might be considered a strength, but the lack of discussion in the party has pushed it further into Stalinist nostalgia and state patriotism. Throughout the post-Soviet era, the Communist Party has been targeted by the authorities to reduce the influence of the Communists. Among the instruments used for this purpose was the creation from above of “spoiler parties” whose purpose was to draw voters away from the Communists.

Despite its name, the Liberal Democratic Party (LPD) under Vladimir Zhirinovskii is neither liberal nor democratic. It was created in 1990 as a populist party around its charismatic leader, and occupies a particular niche in Russian politics. Zhirinovskii is a master at creating “media buzz” around his manoeuvres of criticizing the government but at the last moment always voting in favour of government proposals. The party remains at the same level of representation in the Duma as in 2011, i.e. just above 13 per cent of the popular vote. This gives the party 34 mandates from the party vote and five more mandates from the single-member constituency vote for a total of 39 seats.

The Fair Russia Party (Spravedlivaya Rossiya, SR) was created before the 2007 election as a spoiler party to eat into Communist Party support. It was meant to be a moderate Social Democratic party that would attract voters from the non-reformed Communist Party. Support for Fair Russia declined in 2016 compared with 2011 when it received, as did the Communists, many protest votes against United Russia: Fair Russia received 6.2 per cent of the popular vote in 2016 compared with 11.6 per cent in 2011. In 2016 the party won 16 mandates from the party vote and seven more from the single-member constituency vote for a total of 23 seats. Although the party leader Sergei Mironov is a strong Putin supporter, the party had previously included members who openly supported the 2011 protest movement, such as the well-known father and son Gudkov and Ilya Ponomarev.

None of the other parties of the 14 that stood for election was able to pass the five per cent popular vote threshold. They did not even pass the three per cent level required to obtain state support for election campaign expenses. The Yabloko Party is the frontrunner of the liberal parties. Created in 1993 by Grigorii Yavlinskii, it is now the first Russian party to have a female party leader, Emilia Slabunova. The Party of People’s Freedom (Partiya Narodnoi Svobody – PARNAS) was allowed to participate in the elections although it had threatened to boycott them. Among its candidates was Ilya Yashin, a leader of the 2011 protest movement, and the well-known history professor, Andrei Zubov. Alexei Navalnyi’s Progress Party was not allowed to register for the election. Other liberal parties were the Civic Platform Party (Grazhdanskaya platforma), created by the liberal oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov after he successfully participated in the 2012 presidential elections and received up to seven per cent of the votes. Prokhorov was later expelled from his own party after succumbing to internecine conflict. Civic Platform gained one seat from the single-member constituency vote. In 2016, the popular Oksana Dimitrevna from Sankt Petersburg stood as a candidate for the small liberal Growth Party (Partiya rosta), the successor to the Right Cause Party (Pravoe delo), though the party now emphasizes economic reforms while downplaying political freedom issues. These last two parties, i.e. the Civic Platform and Growth parties, have been accused by critics of being spoiler parties in relation to the three previously mentioned parties, i.e. Yabloko, PARNAS, and the Progress Party, which are more consistent in their criticism of the regime.

Among the patriotic parties without representation in the Duma is the Rodina Party. Created in 2003 by the current Deputy Prime Minister Dmitrii Rogozin and Putin’s adviser Sergei Glaziev, Rodina gained up to nine per cent of the popular vote in the Duma election that year. It then disappeared and was reborn in 2012. In 2016 it won one seat from the single-member constituency vote.

The elections for the 39 regional parliaments produced results similar to those on the federal level with United Russia being the major winner. However, in some cases small parties were able to win representation in regional parliaments by electing a few members.

The liberal parties were more successful on the regional level, especially in large cities, than on the federal level. Yabloko won almost ten per cent of the popular vote in Moscow (9.5 per cent), Sankt Petersburg (nine per cent), Karelia, and the Pskov region. Moreover, in Sankt Petersburg, the Growth Party won 10 per cent of the vote.

The 2016 election also included elections for nine governors and heads of republics. In most cases, the winners were the incumbent or acting governors. To be elected in these elections requires more than 50 per cent of the popular vote and, as expected, the winners belong to the United Russia party.

Allegations of voting irregularities and the use of “black technology” during the elections will continue. The 89 per cent support for Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya, for example, clearly raises questions about the fairness of the elections. The circumstances that resulted in a drastic increase in the turnout and in the support for United Russia during the last hours before the polling stations closed also remain to be clarified.

 

2003 2007
Party
vote %
Party
vote
mandate
Single
member
vote
Total
mandate
Party
vote %
Party
vote
mandate
Single
member
vote
Total
mandate
United
Russia
37,6 120 103 223 64,3 315 315
Communist
Party
12,6 40 12 52 11,6 57 57
Liberal-
Democratic
Party
11,5 36 0 36 8,1 40 40
Fair
Russia
Party
7,7 38 . 38
Rodina
Party
9 29 8 37
Independents 70 70
Other parties less 3%
Parry Treshold 5% 7%
Turn-out 56% 63%

Table: Election Outcome 2016 Federal Duma 2003 + 2007

 

2011 2016
Party
vote %
Party
vote
mandate
Single
member
vote
Total
mandate
Party
vote %
Party
vote
mandate
Single
member
vote
Total
mandate
United
Russia
49,3 238 238 54 140 203 343
Communist
Party
19,2 92 92 13,5 35 7 42
Liberal-
Democratic
Party
13,2 64 64 13,2 34 5 39
Fair
Russia
Party
11,7 56 56 6,1 16 7 23
Rodina
Party
1 1
Independents 1 1
Other parties less 3%
Parry Treshold 7% 5%
Turn-out 64,4% 47,8%

Table: Election Outcome 2016 Federal Duma 2011 + 2016

Changes in electoral legislation and the party system

The dark horse in the 2016 election was the All-Russian People’s Front (PF or, in its Russian abbreviation, ONF). It is not a party and did not formally participate in the election. Nevertheless its members were among the candidates, primarily of the United Russia Party. The Front constitutes a cornerstone of the regime’s present manipulations of the party system. The role of the Front needs to be understood against the background of two dilemmas facing the regime and to which it must find solutions.

First, the regime must increase the legitimacy of the elections while securing its grip on politics. Second, it needs to renew the political system, making it more effective and getting more fresh blood into the system. To accomplish this, it must increase competition in the system while ensuring that this competition does not develop into direct opposition to the regime.

When the single-member constituency vote was cancelled before the 2007 election, this change favoured the United Russia Party. The elections for single-person constituencies had brought a large group of independents from the regions into the Duma, members over which the regime found it difficult to establish control as they were unpredictable in Duma voting. To eliminate the independents and reduce the influence of the liberal parties, the electoral legislation was changed. The party threshold was increased from five per cent to the extremely high figure of seven per cent. This, together with the introduction of proportional-only elections, resulted in all liberals and independents disappearing from the 2007 Duma, while United Russia won as much as 64.3 per cent of the vote.

Much has changed since then. United Russia has been struggling with a reputation for corruption ever since the 2011 elections, and opinion polls reflect waning support for it.

In spring 2011, when opinion poll analysts talked about a “confidence crisis” facing the regime, the People’s Front was created with Putin as its leader. The purpose of the organization at first seemed very unclear, especially in relation to the United Russia Party. Some Front members were nominated as United Russia candidates in the 2011 election.

Since then the purpose and tasks of the People’s Front have become clearer. In 2012 the Front organized pro-regime forces, manifested in large pro-Putin rallies in the months before the presidential election that year. Its first task is to monitor the regional authorities’ implementation of presidential policy, paying special attention to social issues of concern to the population, including that of fighting corruption. The Front thus provides a channel for criticism of governors and local authorities while guaranteeing that critics stay completely loyal to the president. The Front has become a shield defending United Russia, because it can disarm criticism dangerous to the regime and consequently to United Russia.

The Front has also become an unofficial source of recruits for United Russia candidates, although it keeps quiet about this role. It obviously wants to remain “clean” and untarnished by associations with United Russia.

United Russia is eager to recruit new blood into its ranks. In an effort to foster more competition, but in a controlled way, the party introduced so-called primaries over ten years ago. These primaries receive a lot of attention in the Russian media and as such serve a function. However, they do not seem to have proven a satisfactory way of recruiting appropriate candidates, and the outcomes of the primaries are often ignored when party leadership decides who are to stand as party candidates in the Duma elections. The Front now offers United Russia a broader platform for recruitment. Under its chairman, film director Stanislav Govorukhin, the Front includes many well-known names from the fields of culture and politics who can attract wide groups of voters to United Russia. In the 2016 election, Front members were on the United Russia candidate list, primarily for single-person constituencies. Who were proper United Russia members and who were Front members in disguise was, however, difficult to determine.

The Front presents itself as a non-politicized organization that stands above the particular interests of individual parties in favour of the interests of the people as a whole. Its members are officially allowed to join whatever party they want. Yet the Front is a clearly political organization with a strongly patriotic and conservative agenda. Through its members, it has a network of contacts in other organizations and movements of a similar political orientation. Among them is the Anti-Maidan movement that first emerged in February 2015 on the first anniversary of Yanukovich’s being ousted from power in Ukraine. In addition, well-known members of the United Russia Party participate in the activities of the Anti-Maidan movement.

The People’s Front plays a key role in supporting a web of various new pro-regime organizations, movements, and institutions focusing on social issues. Though this may recall the structure of civil society, it is instead a structure of state-sponsored organizations that lack true civil independence. These organizations are initiated from above and stand loyal to the Front and its leader. The Front is at the core of the political system innovations of which Vyacheslav Volodin is said to be the architect. It is a state-initiated system mimicking civil society.

The outcome of the 2016 elections from a long-term perspective

The outcome of the 2016 Duma elections further consolidates the Russian authoritarian system. The changes in the electoral legislation resulting in the reintroduction of the mixed voting system could, in theory, have helped open up the system to other parties. This did not prove to be the case, however, as it instead favoured Putin’s current constellation of power. The manipulation of the party system, by the creation of the People’s Front as a support organization for the president and a shield for United Russia and by the encouragement of spoiler parties against the Communists and the various liberal parties, has further narrowed the arena for political debate, locking out constructive criticism of the regime. To this should be added the strongly polarized political atmosphere in the country in which critics of the regime are immediately labelled “enemies”.

The People’s Front is expected to be the crucial actor in mobilizing support for Putin in the 2018 presidential election. As an organization, led by the leader himself, that promotes the corporate interests of a “united” Russian people consolidated in the “Crimean Consensus”, the Front will be invaluable to Putin. The attraction of the slogan “One people, one leader” is clearly in the air

The authoritarian Russian system now seems to be further consolidating. How solid this system will remain in the future is a completely different issue.

  • by Lena Jonson

    Lena Jonson, an associated research fellow of the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI), is an Associate Professor of Political Science and the former head of the Russia Program at UI. Among her recent books in the field addressed here is Waiting for Reform under Putin and Medvedev (2012), jointly edited with Stephen White (London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan).

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