Polls have opened in a Russian Parliamentary election cycle colored by accusations of misconduct and foreign intrigue.
A three-day voting period commenced across the country early on Friday. As many as fourteen parties were registered to participate in the elections, but the ruling United Russia party is widely expected to retain its sweeping majority in the State Duma. Despite the common association between the two, there is not necessarily a one-to-one connection between President Vladimir Putin and United Russia—at least not in the minds of many Russians. Aggregate polling data from past years shows Putin’s approval rating to be consistently higher than United Russia’s. The latter currently sits at around thirty percent, while the former is generally believed to hover at around sixty percent, suggesting that there is a sizable subset of Russians who support the President but not the ruling party.
The election is being held in the aftermath of what Kremlin critics are calling a far-reaching crackdown on Putin’s most vocal detractors, most notably against the jailed opposition activist Alexei Navalny. A recent expansion of Russia’s “Foreign Agent” law has made it riskier for Navalny’s associates and other Putin critics to continue operating in Russia, spurring a new wave of dissident migration to the Baltics, Georgia, Ukraine, and Western Europe. According to prominent dissident Vladimir Kara-Murza, dozens of opposition candidates were struck from the ballot; still more, he avers, were preemptively barred from running for office on spurious legal grounds ranging from dual citizenship restrictions to affiliation with “extremist” organizations.
Several opposition parties, dubbed the “systemic opposition,” are still able to fully participate in the political process. Of these, three—the Russian Communist Party (CPRF), the populist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), and the left-leaning nationalist For Truth coalition—have cleared the vote threshold for active representation in the State Duma. The “systemic opposition” differs from non-systemic actors like Navalny in that, though they often propose wide-ranging reforms and may even criticize specific Kremlin policies, these groups refrain from attacking Putin or the Kremlin directly and do not question the underlying legitimacy of the current administration.
Still, even the systemic opposition faces roadblocks stemming from instances of alleged electoral misconduct. Boris Vishnevsky, a candidate from the liberal Yabloko party, told the Washington Post that he is being targeted by impersonators who are also running for office under the name Boris Vishnevksy. At least one of these is allegedly associated with United Russia. He believes that these purported decoys are trying to peel votes from him by tricking his supporters into voting for them instead of the real Vishnevsky.
More prevalent, and more effective, than outright fraud is the government’s use of “administrative resources” to gently tip the electoral scales in its favor. Normally close-fisted, United Russia announced generous cash payments to wide swathes of the population just ahead of the September elections. The government’s sudden and rather uncharacteristic embrace of social spending is believed to be intended to undercut the messaging of opposition parties accusing United Russia of not doing enough to assist vulnerable groups in the midst of a pandemic. Perhaps the most impactful administrative resource is the government’s control over the news media, which paints the Communists—the most serious electoral threat to United Russia—in a consistently unflattering light whilst lauding the direction of the country under the current government.
United Russia and the Kremlin, for their part, focused their messaging on the dangers of alleged external interference in the Parliamentary elections. Kremlin officials and pro-government commentators have seized on a European Parliament report suggesting that the EU should withhold its recognition of the outcome of the State Duma elections if they are “recognized as fraudulent.” Russian authorities have pressured Apple and Google into removing a “Smart Voting” app created by Navalny allies. Smart Voting is a strategy to consolidate opposition support around the candidates with the best chance of defeating United Russia incumbents in their respective races, regardless of their party affiliation. The Kremlin has decried Smart Voting as a foreign “provocation,” with Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova claiming that the practice is somehow connected to the U.S. Defense Department. These allegations, which are widely circulated by Russian media, serve to divert attention from domestic concerns over the way the elections are being conducted, channeling the frustrations of Russians away from their government and toward a hostile “collective West” supposedly bent on depriving them of their right to freely choose their elected representatives. In yet another populist pre-election measure by the Kremlin, Russian citizenship holders from the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic are being allowed to vote in the election. The move angered Ukraine and risks further complicating an already fraught peace process to end the ongoing war in Donbas, but will likely prove popular among Russian voters who believe that Moscow should more actively support the breakaway self-proclaimed republics to Ukraine’s east.
Although United Russia’s victory is all but assured, its precise margin of victory can still serve as a bellwether of popular support for the ruling party. A narrow win could spell a grim portent for the party’s long-term prospects, raising further questions about its legitimacy and rendering it more susceptible to the future emergence of an opposition coalition with enough Duma seats to challenge United Russia’s decades-long political monopoly.
Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for the National Interest.