On 19 September 2021, 450 members were elected to Russia’s State Duma. This was the eighth such election to be held in the history of the Russian Federation. Half of these candidates were elected directly via their constituency (first vote), the other half were chosen via lists of candidates from permitted parties (second vote). For the first time, voters were given a three-day period during which they could vote electronically. A number of regional elections also took place.
The German media continues to focus heavily on electoral fraud, Alexei Navalny and, of course, the victory of the United Russia party, which means background details, social upheavals and internal battles within the apparatus of power and Russian society have, sadly, been ignored. These factors did, however, have a role to play during campaigning and were reflected in the outcome of the election. It is thus worth mentioning a number of key issues.
The campaign and the election took place under severe restrictions as a result of measures that had long been in place due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. However, in the run-up to the election, the Russian electoral authority had also decided to bar a number of promising opposition candidates from the vote using rigid methods. This affected several left-wing candidates as well as neoliberal democrats from the so-called Navalny faction. A ‘smart voting’ strategy was aggressively pursued by all opposition forces, whereby voters were encouraged to cast their ballot for the opposition candidate in their district most likely to win.
All these elections – both as events and in terms of the results – are significant as they help gauge the level of dissatisfaction among the population as the country faces an ongoing financial crisis as well as continuing preparations, that began in 2018, for the ‘transit of power’ as the Russians call it, i.e. the post-Putin era. This is characterised by sometimes latent conflicts and disputes among today’s powerful elite – the siloviki – in the presidential administration, government and state apparatus, the army and security services, businesses, banks and financial capital, but also among the new strong men and the political forces in self-governed major cities and regions. These clashes are the manifestation of contradictory social and political movements. The state and power apparatus’ increasingly authoritarian approach to civil society critics and oppositional forces of all stripes also influenced the result. Internal conflicts were further exacerbated.
Despite multiple waves of protest since 2019, where a desire for change was clearly articulated, there was no real push for change in the run-up to the election, i.e. no side was able to harness the momentum. This was in no way simply a result of reprisals and restrictions placed on the opposition.
The preliminary official result is as follows:
Despite suffering mild losses, United Russia, the governing party, was able to retain its constitutional majority: with 339 seats, the party can continue to make constitutional changes without consulting other parliamentary groups for another five years (as at the beginning of 2020). But it was certainly no commanding victory. For the first time, Vladimir Putin felt compelled to be actively involved in campaigning.
The loser of this election is the right-wing populist Vladimir Zhirinovsky as his LDPR parliamentary group saw its seat numbers drop from 40 to 21, which benefitted the two left-wing parliamentary parties: the Communist Party increased its seats from 43 to 57, while A Just Russia went from 23 to 27 seats. For the first time since the start of the 2000s, a fifth party was able to enter parliament with enough members to form its own group (New People with 13 seats).
Other parties were either unable to pass the 5% threshold needed to enter parliament or failed to win the crucial 3% needed to secure a state refund of their election costs. Contrary to expectations, the left-wing, socially oriented Party of Pensioners achieved just under three percent of the vote. The Yabloko Party, known for its 90s image as a party focused on basic rights, democracy and ecology, failed to find a way out of its protracted crisis and back into parliament, despite a change in leadership. Three smaller parties are represented in the new State Duma, each with one directly elected member. Five independents also won direct mandates. However, these remain exceptions as United Russia was able to overwhelmingly expand its majority by winning 198 single mandate constituencies.
In the run-up to the election, United Russia suffered a historic slump in the polls. Yet, at the same time, the government, represented by Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and President Vladimir Putin, remained popular and even saw its approval ratings rise slightly. The head of the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VCIOM), Valery Fyodorov, believes that people want a fresh start, but they also want stability; they need to be able to “breathe easy” after the crisis and the pandemic; they want to see a new style of politics and new faces, but no more upheaval.
As is so often the case in Russia, the desire for stability contrasts with new developments. Alexey Chesnakov, a political scientist with ties to the government, wrote on this Telegram channel that the expectations of voters were, however, “a stable development”.
Only in the final weeks of the campaign, which took place under strict COVID-19 restrictions and was paid scant attention by the overwhelmingly passive electorate, did UR’s campaign really come together when President Putin personally threw his support behind the governing party. (During past elections, he has made a point of keeping a distance.) Putin enacted the transfer of ‘crisis funds’: payments to all pensioners as well as families of army service personnel and law enforcement staff. The figures may have only been modest, but the move had a psychological impact.
Another novelty was the fact that Sergey Lavrov and Sergey Shoygu, the two most popular government ministers, as well as doctors who became well known during the pandemic and public figures, ran for leading roles on the United Russia ticket. And, for the first time, almost all the names appearing at the top of UR lists were even gender balanced.
When party lists were drawn up, some well-known opposition candidates were excluded by Russia’s Central Election Commission. This notably affected Pavel Grudinin (CPRF) and Lev Schlossberg (Yabloko). Some politicians were unable to run as they were deemed to belong to extremist organisations or had a criminal record. This included Julia Galyaminia, Oleg Stepanov, Irina Fatyanova and Ilya Yashin. Isolated cases of political persecution affected both left-wing activists (such as Nikolay Platoshkin, from the ‘For a New Socialism’ movement), as well as those close to Alexei Navalny. The list of what the law considers ‘foreign agents’ was regularly expanded to include Russian-based NGOs, media and individuals.
As a party, United Russia has very little reason to be ecstatic following the results. Can 49.8% of the vote truly be interpreted as a success in terms of numbers or is it simply a continuation of the status quo? Even analysts close to the Kremlin point to consistently high levels of social discontent that helped the CPRF achieve “something akin to a phantom 90s comeback”, according to Marat Bashirov. He also stated that although UR was the overwhelming victor, the election had a low turnout (52% of 108 million eligible voters) and success was only ensured thanks to direct support from the Kremlin. This further undermined the party’s image as an independent entity and made it look like an organisation in cahoots with those in power.
On his Telegram channel, political scientist Ilya Grashenkov even spoke of a new political landscape. The State Duma has never been viewed as trustworthy by society and despite its increased ability to shape and pass laws since the constitutional reform of 2020, it remains a chamber with little decision-making power in the process of the ongoing transition of power. But the new make-up of its members, Grashenkov claims, promises greater competition and more space for constructive political forces. Sceptical observers following the situation in Russia, however, believe the parliament has no de facto power and consider the outcome of the election as nothing more than some sociological study and an indicator of the political mood.
Octagon.Media writes that even the Russian political system requires legitimisation and this election result helped achieve its “construction” under enormous pressure. Nothing else was to be expected, the article claims.
The CPRF, a party that has been repeatedly written off over the years, particularly outside Russia, notched up a major increase in votes and social acceptance. Dmitry Yevstafyev pointed to the surprisingly weak impact of populism and anti-communism as a phenomenon in this election. Consequently, this resulted in the recognition and polarisation of two political movements, argued Dmitry Novikov, deputy of the Communist Party, on TV channel Russia-1 on the night of the election. On the one side, there are those who are afraid of change or who just want something that is “no worse than what we have”. On the other are those who stand for change or even a political sea change, but not at the expense of another state and social collapse. Novikov thus deems United Russia’s renewed constitutional majority a disaster for both parliament and country.
As a political force, the communists are practically on an equal footing with UR from Sakhalin to Tomsk. “The winds of freedom, of this country’s renewal and of justice are now blowing from the east,” said General Secretary of the Communist Party Gennady Zyuganov at a press conference held by news agency TASS on 20 September. The Communist Party was highly successful in regions such as Sakha, the Far Eastern Federal District, Irkutsk, Omsk, Komi as well as several major cities. With just under 20 percent of second votes, the party was able to build on its best results in recent decades. To compare, it achieved 22.3% in 1995, 24.3% in 1999, 12.6% in 2003, 11.5% in 2007, 19.2 in 2011, and 13.3% in 2016.
Pavel Pryanikov, the renowned Moscow-based journalist and blogger, believes this is because the party has started appealing to younger and middle-aged voters who are neither nostalgic about the Stalin era nor do they support currying favour with the orthodox church, opinions which are widespread among the CPRF’s older members. This new generation, Pryanikov argues, tend to be Europe-leaning socialists. They are involved either as candidates or election volunteers, and this shift was already visible during the Moscow election of 2019. The pursuit of this cautious perestroika as an attempt to renew the party, Pryanikov claims, bore political fruit even though the leadership is still firmly beholden to the ‘grandfather generation’. At the party conference in spring 2021, the expected change at the head of the party failed to materialise.
Until now the party has pandered to its core voters (who make up roughly 10% of the vote) in the false belief that a renewal of the party would jeopardise support from its base and bring neither more votes nor new supporters. Interest in and sympathy for the CPRF are, however, more than likely to rise should the party continue to focus on human rights, freedom of speech, trade unions, cosmopolitan attitudes, social guarantees, and scientific as well as technological progress and move away from the “pro-Stalin, pro-Ukraine and traditional values, and anti-west and anti-NATO agenda”.
For the first time, the opposition faced a scandalous situation involving electronic voting in the Russian capital: in 2021, electronic (remote) voting was enabled in seven regions as part of an experiment. Over 2.6 million voters signed up, primarily those who are highly mobile and tech savvy as well as public sector workers who have substantial experience with the electronic portal for government-run services (Gosuslugi). In Moscow, roughly 2 million citizens, i.e. just under half of the city’s 2021 voters, cast their ballot electronically.
During the election campaign, the opposition called for voters to take part in the election in person and argued to the last against voting electronically, claiming that transparency and monitoring were impossible on the blockchain platform which had been contracted by the government in Moscow and that trusting it was thus a question of faith. They also insinuated that United Russia and a number of employers had forced countless voters to take part electronically. This then, sadly, proved to be a recipe for scandal on election night: before the polls closed, opposition forces were ahead in seven of Moscow’s 15 districts. But when the electronic votes were counted, they turned everything on its head: suddenly, those candidates supported by the city’s mayor, Sergey Sobyanin, i.e. predominantly UR candidates, were declared the winners. The disproportionate share of votes for UR and an embarrassingly long wait before the final results were declared caused immediate outrage and protest.
The Moscow electronic voting scandal overshadowed the winners’ success and will further deter those interested in politics from voting electronically in future elections. Observers noted a contradictory outcome: the Communist Party, they believed, was subliminally seen as the de facto but unacknowledged victor, while the “party of power” was acknowledged as the winner but with major reservations.
This newly founded party aimed to position itself as up-and-coming and hoped to sweep up votes from Navalny supporters and left-wing voters who had previously not been represented on the ballot paper. The New People are a party that somewhat “symbolises the legitimacy” of the new State Duma, as it was appropriately put during an election night talk show. The party was founded seemingly out of nowhere by Alexey Nechayev, owner of Russian cosmetics company Faberlic. It portrays itself as a new progressive force that defends the interests of companies and city-dwelling freelancers, on the one hand, and, on the other, stands up for regions against large urban areas. NP’s face during the election was Sardana Avksentyeva, former mayor of Yakutsk, who was able to garner plenty of sympathy during the campaign and debates thanks to her charm and unique reserved, no-nonsense style. Analysts believe that the NL may become a platform for those loyal to the ruling power who take a more critical view of UR in some areas but strictly adhere to the current political rules of play. The party has in effect become a melting pot of neoliberal democrats, representing new elites, owners of medium to large companies and so-called movers and shakers who in Germany would be drawn to the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) or the Greens.
‘The elections are over, time to forget about politics’ read one headline in the (independent) Nezavisimaya Gazeta. Even in an election year, the concerns and needs of everyday citizens played only a minor role: falling wages, high inflation and rising prices, unemployment and high credit exposure among the wider population were hardly mentioned. At the same time, material insecurity, poverty and anxiety about the future are rampant. These issues have a greater and more lasting influence on society’s state of mind than political battles and vote shares. The new parliament will soon have to face up to people’s actual expectations.
In Russia, there are hopes for economic, social and democratic change. A desire for change is in the air but until now it has yet to lead to a genuine political shift. This is in part due to decades of past experience that has shown the population that change is always followed by upheavals or decline. This is exacerbated by mistrust towards the government authorities and dissatisfaction with political actors of all stripes. It remains to be seen how a constructive path out of this crisis can be forged.
Originally published at the website of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Foundation (German)