A short overview of results, causes, and consequences of Russian elections by Russian liberal politician Leonid Gozman.
The results of Russia’s recent parliamentary elections are quite characteristic of dictatorships and implausible for democratic countries: President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party received 54 percent of the vote based on party lists, won in 202 out of 225 single-mandate districts, and will control 75 percent of the seats in Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma. The remaining 25 percent of the seats are distributed among parties that openly support Putin’s actions, particularly in the foreign policy arena, and vote with the party of power on all key issues. Not a single party that did not already hold seats in the previous Duma cleared the 5 percent threshold to enter the new convocation. Two parties that criticized Putin’s course, Yabloko (which was backed by the leaders of the Russian intelligentsia) and PARNAS (which had included the late Boris Nemtsov, who was murdered in February 2015), earned less than 2 percent and 0.61 percent, respectively. In single-mandate districts, not one candidate was elected who had ever expressed any opposition to Vladimir Putin or his policies.
Turnout at the polls was the lowest in post-Soviet history. The election campaign was sluggish and rife with overt violations that favored the ruling party, as well as discriminatory restrictions that targeted the Kremlin’s critics. At the same time, independent observers and experts agree that the vote-counting process was carried out without the kind of large-scale falsifications that had sparked mass protests in Moscow after the results of the 2011 parliamentary elections were announced.
Among the technical reasons for the election results were the following factors:
- Low voter turnout, particularly in areas with many opposition-minded residents, such as Moscow and other major cities;
- The existence of so-called “managed voting zones” such as Chechnya, Tatarstan, and others, where the participation rate is close to 90 percent and 90 percent or more of voters cast their ballots for United Russia;
- The rescheduling of parliamentary elections from December to September, which shifted the height of the election campaign to the summer vacation season: many voters who could have made an informed choice simply did not notice the campaign;
- An all-out attack by state-owned media—especially television channels, which are almost exclusively controlled by the Kremlin—against critics of the regime, who were labeled foreign agents. This attack took place in an atmosphere of anti-Western hysteria and a besieged-fortress mentality;
- A virtual embargo on critics of the regime, who were barred from the media and prevented from organizing meetings with voters, among other limitations;
- Tactical mistakes by the opposition candidates themselves.
However, the fundamental reasons were much more important and included:
- Very high genuine popular support for President Putin’s aggressive foreign policy, which was the main issue at play in the election campaign;
- The sense of a lack of alternatives among the majority of the population, which views all of Putin’s opponents as dull and/or dangerous;
- An organizationally and ideologically weak opposition with unpopular leaders—the public is tired of seeing the same old faces for more than two decades (and these leaders aren’t planning to retire even after the latest crushing defeat);
- The citizens’ disillusionment with the Duma as a whole and their lack of faith that the Duma has any influence at all over the situation in the country;
- The systemic ideological failure of liberals to popularize their ideas with the population at large in all these years. Liberal ideology is perceived as alien to the national history and mentality, imposed from without by Russia’s enemies.
Some of the key consequences of the elections are as follows:
- Political activity will not be a legitimate method of achieving power in Russia in the foreseeable future. We will see both increased emigration from Russia and escalated use of radical and violent methods to fight the regime;
- The Kremlin has relieved itself of the last remaining obligations to get even pro forma approvals for its actions. President Putin’s power is now absolute;
- The opposition that seeks a pro-European course for Russia will have to completely rethink its strategy. It is too early to tell whether it will do so successfully;
- Putin’s foreign policy will inevitably become more aggressive, and his domestic policy—more repressive.
This article first appeared at the International Democrat Union site.