What to Know About Russia’s Parliamentary Elections

On 18 September, Russians will go to the polls to elect representatives to State Duma, the lower house of parliament. Candidates from 14 parties will compete for the 450 seats in the first national parliamentary elections since December 2011. They come at a potentially challenging time for the Russian leadership, not least because the Russian economy has endured a long period of stagnation and recession, the effects of which are being felt across the country. Here, Andrew Monaghan tells you what you need to know about the elections.

  • The Russian leadership has sought to ‘reset’ political life since flawed elections in 2011. This includes easing rules for the registering of political parties and the reintroduction of direct elections for regional governors. Officials suggest that this is an attempt to encourage greater competition. A number of reforms have been implemented, including the reintroduction of a mixed electoral system to attempt to restore local representation. Half the seats will be elected by proportional representation from closed party lists, with a 5% electoral threshold across the country, and the other half will be elected in single member constituencies using first-past-the-post system. Ella Pamfilova, a respected figure, has been appointed as the head of the Election Commission, and has emphasised her intention to ‘remove negativity and distrust towards the elections’.Nevertheless, the ‘reset’ has remained problematic and opposition parties still argue that the electoral playing field is not level, suggesting, for instance, that television airtime is unequally loaded in favour of United Russia (UR), the party of power led by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
  • United Russia still dominates the parliamentary political landscape, for now. Established in 2001, the party won a ‘supermajority’ victory in 2007, claiming 64% of the vote and 315 seats. But since 2009 its popular support has ebbed, partly because of the impact of deteriorating economic conditions, and partly because of public frustration with corruption and abuse of power. In 2011, the party won 49% (amid much protest), but since then it has overwhelmingly won the yearly regional elections. UR is likely to win first place on 18 September, though polls – and party sources – suggest that support is still waning, and that gaining 40-44% will be seen as a good result, a 44-48% will be seen as very good.
  • The political opposition comes in two forms. The first is the ‘systemic’ opposition – those parties that are represented in parliament. These are the leftist Just Russia party, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), in fact a nationalist party, and the Communist Party of Russia (KPRF). Of this systemic opposition, the KPRF has long been the main national challenger to UR, and the main beneficiary of any protest voting. Even so, polls in late August put the KPRF well behind UR, and broadly alongside the LDPR at about 10%.The second category is known as the ‘non-systemic’ opposition, those parties and coalitions not represented in parliament, including more anti-government and radical opposition. This includes the more liberal elements, such as Yabloko and PARNAS. They are unlikely to pass the 5% threshold, are deeply divided among themselves and lack wider popular support, problems recently compounded by a series of scandals.
  • Don’t expect protests or public opposition. If there is limited political opposition, the authorities do nevertheless face public social opposition and protest, particularly in the regions. Most recently, in August, farmers staged an anti-corruption march on Moscow. But widespread frustration does not appear to be translating into greater public political activity: polls suggest that a large majority (80%) is not ready to become more active in politics, or even believes that their vote can affect politics at either regional or federal level (87%). It is unlikely that frustration will lead to substantial nationwide protest demonstrations.In any case, the authorities, long worried about the possibility of a ‘Maidan’ style protest taking place in Russia, have taken measures to prevent it. Amendments tightening legislation on public assembly, rallies and protests have been introduced, and law enforcement organisations, including the newly established National Guard, have conducted major exercises to prepare to deal with ‘civil disobedience’ similar to ‘Maidan’.
  • Watch where senior figures and new blood end up. Overall, the anticipated results of the election suggest little outward change in the Russian political landscape is likely, with the question being the relative balance of existing systemic parties in the new Duma. Nevertheless, the elections offer important insight into how the authorities are seeking to organize and manage the political scene, particularly with the 2018 presidential elections looming.It will be worth following closely the ongoing ‘rotation’ of senior personnel as the leadership seeks to make the Russian system function more effectively. People to watch include Vyacheslav Volodin who, as first deputy chief of staff of the presidential administration oversees domestic politics, and Tatiana Voronova, who heads the domestic politics department in the Kremlin. Moreover, younger people are being brought into the system and promoted to senior positions. This is partly through organizations such as the All Russia Popular Front and party youth movements. It also appears to be happening through party primaries, which Vladimir Putin has suggested are a tool for finding new people. Held for the first time in Russia this spring and summer, the party primaries sought to recruit new candidates, testing them through debating and campaigning. Those who thrive in September may find themselves swiftly promoted to senior positions over the next couple of years.

Dr Andrew Monaghan is senior research fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House. He is also a visiting fellow at the Changing Character of War Programme at Pembroke College, Oxford.

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