The general elections to the Russia State Duma (lower house of parliament) concluded on September 19, after three days of in-person and remote internet voting, with a total landslide victory for the Kremlin. Half of the Duma deputies are elected through proportionate party representation, and the other half are chosen in single-member constituencies using the simple-majority first-past-the-post principle. According to official results, President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia (UR) party received almost 50 percent of the popular vote and took 126 out of the 225 seats distributed by proportional representation. Of the other 225 seats available in single-mandate majoritarian districts, UR won 198. In sum UR will have 324 deputies in the 450-seat Duma, or 72 percent, allowing it to unilaterally pass any laws or constitutional amendments that require a two-thirds majority of the chamber. Four other parties will have representation in the Duma; but of these, only the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), which came in second in the popular vote with almost 19 percent and will control 57 seats, can be considered a functional opposition (Interfax, September 21).
Although the KPRF fully supports Putin’s revisionist and neo-imperialist agenda of reuniting with Crimea and other parts of the former Soviet Union as well as the confrontation with the West, this faction has also notably taken a public stance against capitalism, including Putinist crony capitalism. The KPRF and its traditional voter base want a sweeping nationalization of banks and heavy industry. The KPRF believes a revisionist restoration of the Soviet Union must come with a restoration of Soviet-style “socialism.” So while mostly loyal to the Putin, the KPRF sometimes behaves like a genuine opposition party. In contrast, the other three political parties that will enter the next parliament are not opposition factions at all: they are deliberate spoilers, created by the Kremlin over the years to attract votes from dissatisfied citizens and channel them to de facto pro-Kremlin political entities. The oldest such spoiler is the Liberal-Democratic Party of the Russian Federation (LDPR) of flamboyant politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky, created in April 1991 by the Kremlin and the Soviet KGB. The LDPR will control 21 seats in the new Duma. The Just Russia party was rebranded this year—under Kremlin guidance—into Just Russia–Patriots–For Truth and will have 27 seats. Finally, a new entity, called New People, was created last year by the Kremlin specifically to attract the votes of citizens who want change. This party will have 13 deputies in the parliament (RBC, September 20).
Russia is a highly centralized presidential state. Under the constitution, the powers of the legislative branch are limited—it has no real oversight power over the dominating executive. The Duma simply passes, without much discussion or opposition, Kremlin-sponsored bills. The previous Duma was a rubber stamp parliament, and the new one will be too (RBC, September 20).
A great deal of true grassroots discontent exists in Russia. Household incomes continue to contract and, today, are actually lower than in 2013 (Kommersant, August 9). Putin’s neo-imperialist agenda enjoys virtually unanimous support in the Duma; but within the general public, its glamor has significantly faded since the heydays of Krym nash (“Crimea is ours”) in 2014. According to a recent poll by the independent pollster Levada-Tsenter, just 32 percent of the population wants Russia to be a “great power, feared and respected by other nations,” while 66 percent want “Russia to be a nation with high living standards, though maybe not one of the strongest in the world.” In 2014, according to Levada, when asked the same set of questions, 48 percent of Russians prioritized the superpower option, while 47 percent expressed a wish for high living standards (Rosbalt, September 13).
In light of all this, the newly elected Duma (like its predecessor) reflects the priorities of the Kremlin and the more aggressive fractions of the ruling elite—not the needs or will of the people. The true leader of the opposition, Alexei Navalny, is in prison. His anti-corruption foundation and other like-minded organizations have been banned as “extremist,” while pro-Navalny activists have been prosecuted or forced to emigrate (see EDM, September 13, 15). Ahead of the Duma elections, Google and Apple were forced to remove from their app stores Navalny’s “smart voting” apps, apparently after threats from the Russian authorities to indict local Google and Apple officials on felony charges of interfering in the election (Lenta, September 18; see EDM, September 20).
Accusations of irregularities and vote-rigging during the election have been widespread but universally rejected by the authorities. The KPRF and the liberal party Yabloko have refused to accept the official election results—in particular, the totals tabulated from remote internet voting. In a number of constituencies, Kremlin-sponsored candidates won by small margins at the last moment, as ballots cast online were added (Interfax, September 23). According to the Kremlin press service, Putin, who is in self-imposed isolation following a COVID-19 outbreak within his close circle, voted remotely on September 17, using a desktop computer. But on the officially provided footage, the president’s Swiss watch dial can be seen clearly, and the date on its calendar reads September 10—that is, prior to the start of legal remote voting. Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov spun a bizarre explanation, announcing, “The calendar on Putin’s watch is not set right, because he does not care” (Gazeta.ru, September 18). Apparently, Putin ether did not vote at all, or the process was specially bent to accommodate him.
The Kremlin won the Duma election in a landslide using a combination of trickery, deceit and crude political repression. Post-election euphoria seems rather muted in the broader population, but there is plenty of it in the corridors of power. The Russian authorities consider the Western-supported opposition utterly defeated, while the West’s purported attempts to meddle in the election were supposedly derailed. After the new Duma is inaugurated, lawmakers plan to pass even more severe legislation to further suppress so-called foreign agents and undesirable organizations still lurking in the country (Kommersant, September 23). The parliamentary election results may give the Kremlin the impression that it has a popular mandate to more vigorously pursue its revisionist, empire-building agenda abroad while continuing to suppress the opposition at home.