ZOiS Spotlight 32/2021

The Russian State Duma Elections: Costs for the Kremlin

by Ben Noble 15/09/2021
United Russia campaign billboard put up ahead of the elections to the Russian State Duma. IMAGO / ITAR-TASS

Elections to Russia’s State Duma—the lower chamber of the country’s national parliament—will take place on 17–19 September. All 450 seats will be contested for the Duma’s eighth term, which will run until 2026—and, therefore, across the next Russian presidential election in 2024. President Vladimir Putin has said that he ‘very much hopes’ that the pro-Kremlin United Russia party will maintain its dominant position and ‘be able to take the necessary legislative decisions in the interests of the country’.

Russia’s parliament is often dismissed as a rubber stamp—a body entirely subservient to Putin and his government; a piece of democratic window dressing. That may, on the whole, be the case. But executive power in Russia depends to a significant degree on the Kremlin retaining control of the legislative branch. If the executive were to lose its grip on the legislature after this year’s elections, there could be a return to the feisty executive-legislative relations of the early 2000s. That would be costly for the Presidential Administration—and a clear blow to the ruling elite. That means the Kremlin is taking the upcoming elections very seriously.

A costly charade?

Observers often disregard Russian elections as a complete ‘charade’. Official results bear no relation to the ballots cast, it is argued, and are simply fixed according to the Kremlin’s wishes. With this narrative, a sense of inevitability can set in. Victories for the authorities are assumed to be almost the natural order of things. And that is one reason why political apathy is on the rise.

But there is nothing inevitable about election results in Russia. Resounding victories for the authorities are, in part, the result of costly interventions and manipulations to weaken the chances of opposition candidates and bolster those of United Russia. The authorities might win most of the time, but that is because of constant management. By dismissing outcomes as foregone conclusions, analysts run the risk of overlooking the importance of how results are constructed and the costs involved in achieving them.

The steps to victory

With United Russia’s approval rating under 30 per cent throughout July and August 2021, the authorities are having to draw on an ever-wider ‘menu of manipulation’ to secure the result Putin wants. This runs the full range from electoral incentives to a crackdown on opposition and electoral falsification.

The president has promised one-off pre-election cash payments to pensioners, military personnel, and law enforcement. Although Valentina Matvienko—the speaker of the Federation Council, the upper chamber of the national parliament—has said that this is not a political move, there are strong grounds to doubt this. It is difficult not to see the payments as a means to shore up support among portions of Russian society that form Putin’s traditional base.

The political opposition has faced an unprecedented crackdown, which has included candidates being barred from running given their ties to Alexei Navalny’s movement and organisations, now branded ‘extremist’ by the authorities. And Russia’s communications regulator, Roskomnadzor, has blocked access to the website of Team Navalny’s Smart Voting project, a tactical-voting initiative aimed at consolidating opposition voters around candidates best positioned to beat the authorities’ picks.

If these pre-election steps don’t work, the results can be fixed in a more direct fashion. The Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta published an audio recording that it claims exposes a briefing session in Korolyov – a city in Moscow Oblast’ – giving instructions to electoral commission officials on what results should be achieved and how to falsify them.

Beyond these examples, there are many other ways in which the electoral playing field is distorted, from skewed media coverage to turnout suppression and the use of spoiler candidates.

Not all manipulation

For the Kremlin, the ideal scenario is, of course, for people to vote for United Russia out of genuine support for the party and its candidates. That naturally reduces the need for manipulation to achieve the electoral result the country’s political leadership wants.

And there are certainly many Russians who don’t need persuading to support the party of power. For these voters, life has improved under Putin’s rule—and the prospect of political change runs the risk of unwanted instability.

The speaker of the State Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, has referred to Russia as the ‘last island of freedom and democracy’ in the world. This rightly raised many eyebrows. But the opposite extreme—that election results are simply scripted by the Kremlin—is also wrong. The Russian authorities have to invest significant resources into achieving the results they want. This underscores the authoritarian nature of politics in today’s Russia. But it is also vital to keep in mind when evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the current political system. The opposition might also gain some comfort from the rising costs it makes the Kremlin incur to achieve electoral success.

United Russia may well win a majority, or super-majority, in this year’s State Duma elections, but the real story is not the result but how the Kremlin and United Russia secure it.

Dr Ben Noble is a lecturer in Russian politics at University College London, an associate fellow at Chatham House, and a senior research fellow at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.