Sergey Bespalov

FRF Senior Fellow

Sep 14, 2021
Russian State Duma election campaign analysis: The final countdown

Just a few days remain before the Russian State Duma elections.

Early voting has already begun in remote polling stations and abroad. The ballots have been printed. This analysis assesses the situation as the campaign approaches the finish line.

The General Environment

The elections take place during a period of dramatic intensification of oppression and curtailing of the rights and liberties of Russian citizens.  Over the course of the campaign, several dozen media outlets, private citizens and NGOs have been designated as “foreign agents” and “undesirable organizations,” and their activities have been either considerably reduced or completely shut down.

Dozens of political activists have been pushed into exile. Dozens have been handed sentences that disenfranchises them in election rights

For the first time, there will be no international observation effort from OSCE.

Approximately nine million people have been disenfranchised in their election rights. 

Dozens of activists and regional politicians have been purged from electoral lists due to their association with Navalny’s movement.

Russia saw the largest disbursement of “helicopter money” in memory. Approximately 65 million people have received money from the government, and for the first time in Russian history, over 60% of adult residents in Russia received social support payments. In total, there are 104 million voters in Russia. For comparison, the “maternity capital” payments made to families for having a second or third child, which previously had been the largest state welfare program, had been extended to 10 million people, maximum. This is a direct violation of the election law prohibiting bribing of voters.

For all intents and purposes, the US and EU have lifted international sanctions on Russia’s state entities as they relate to the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. The completion of the Nord Stream 2 construction has been purposefully timed and heavily promoted.

The introduction of the second round of sanctions punishing Russia’s use of chemical weapons against Navalny has not taken place. According to the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Chemical Weapons, initial sanctions should be imposed immediately once the Organization for the Prohibition on Chemical Weapons confirms that these weapons have been used, with a second round following six months later. Joe Biden has not introduced the second round of sanctions.

There has been a clear attempt at suppressing votes during these elections. Neither the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) nor the media are encouraging people to go out and vote. Political parties have barely even spent any money campaigning since the start of the electoral season— a couple of rubles per voter over the course of the entire campaign.

Electronic voting has been introduced, making it possible to control how people vote— providing a way to monitor the process and the outcome. For example, in Moscow, government employees are forced to register for electronic voting, and on election day, they are to come to work and press a button in the presence of their supervisors. This violates the confidentiality clause of the election law. Out of 7.7 million voters in Moscow, over 1.3 million have registered for electronic voting.

The CEC has basically eliminated video monitoring of polling stations, restricting access to just a small group of individuals. Rather than simply streaming the video openly online, the CEC has introduced a multi-step online access procedure available only to a small, previously registered group of people.

Between the 2016 and 2021, over 600,000 Russian passports have been issued throughout unrecognized territories such Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, Crimea, and the Donbass. Remote electronic voting and streamlined voting procedures have been made available for the new Russian citizens in the Donbass.

Absolutely all platforms associated with Alexei Navalny’s “Smart Voting” have been blocked in Russia, including the movement’s website and apps. The courts have ordered Google and Yandex to stop processing searches for the term “Smart Voting”. Yandex has already stopped turning up links for this search.

For the entirety of the election campaign as well as the entire year leading up to the elections, there has been a ban on all public mass events under the guise of fighting the Covid-19 pandemic. Public events for Putin’s United Russia party, however, have been exempt from this restriction.

Polling data helps to further substantiate the general impression of the situation leading up to the election:

United Russia, the main pro-government party, is entering the elections at its 15-year lowest ratings.  At the beginning of the campaign, in June 2021, approval for United Russia was to around 30% (in 2016, this figure vacillated between 42%-44% according to various polling services as the election campaign season began). Throughout nearly the entire campaign, approval for United Russia has steadily declined, hitting 27% and then rebounding to about 30% only after the unprecedented handout of “helicopter money” to nearly 45 million Russian citizens (announced on August 22, though the payments were actually disbursed on September 1). The approval for the main opposition party—the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) has grown slightly, from 13% to 17%. The CPRF and its candidates in single-mandate districts are actively campaigning, and this is reflected in its growing approval. The other two parliamentary parties, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) and A Just Russia (SR) have not seen any change to their approval since the beginning of the campaign, at 11% and 7%, respectively.

The opinion polls do not answer the main question—whether we will see a repeat of the phenomenon known as the “Navalny 2013 effect,” when, one week prior to the Moscow mayoral elections, polling services predicted that Alexei Navalny would receive 13-14% of the vote, but he ended up taking  27%. Pollsters later chalked this up to the super-mobilization of Navalny supporters during the final week of the campaign. According to Russian legislation, candidates cannot be removed from ballots within the last five days before the election, and the polls were not able to predict that level of mobilzation.

Will the same happen in the Duma Elections in 2021? Remember, in April 2021, one polling service estimated the approval for a hypothetical “Navalny party” at 10%. Political scientist Grigoriy Golosov and mathematician Sergei Shpilkin have conducted analysis and concluded that Smart Voting—the “hypothetical Navalny party’s” main project—in 2020 endowed candidates in cities like St. Petersburg with an additional 7% of votes.

Smart Voting has Emerged as the main unknown factor in these elections.

The balance of forces in this electoral campaign is such that “those in power have money, administrative resources, and the means to disenfranchise voters, but do not have more than 30% approval; while the opposition languishes in jail or has been forced into exile, has been deprived of tools for voter mobilization, and still commands over 40%-42% of  Russian voters”. The 40%-42% represents combined approval for a hypothetical Navalny party + CPRF + LDPR + SR.

At the same time, in single-ticket districts, United Russia is ubiquitous, while the opposition is fragmented, with the most charismatic candidates sidelined from running or removed from electoral lists during the campaign process, including in the case of well-known politicians such as Yuneman, Furgal, and Shlossberg. In reality, the opposition candidates are campaigning in about one-third of the single-mandate districts, whereas in the others, they simply do not have enough money to campaign.

Assessment of the remaining candidates and real level of competition on party lists and in single-mandate districts

All parties that were able to legally register for the elections without collecting signatures have registered with party lists. There are 14 registered parties in all. Just before elections were announced, PARNAS (Boris Nemtsov’s party) had been suspended from registering for six months, preventing it from taking part in the State Duma elections. There was no explanation for this, and everything was arranged by the Russian Ministry of Justice.

The Kremlin’s strategy was to prevent the most media-savvy and popular candidates from being included into party lists—such as the CPRF’s Platoshkin and Bondarenko, both of whom have their own media resources and hundreds of thousands of followers on social media and YouTube. 

Parliamentary parties were banned from including or nominating charismatic politicians such as Anton Furgal (the son of jailed Khabarovsk governor Sergei Furgal) or Evgeniy Yumashev (the mayor of Bodaybo district in Irkutsk, and the only politician in Russia to have passed the so-called “municipal filter,” that is, the votes of 5% of all deputies in his region) in single-ticket districts.

Even among parties running in the elections, the number of candidates has significantly dropped—the list of CPRF candidates has shrunk by 46 people, and the LDPR by 96, with SR by 31. However, the number of candidates removed from the elections has grown and now stands at 321, with 15 more who may end up being disqualified based on CEC complaints (due to their ownership of foreign assets).

It is important to note that the registered parties have raised very little for the election campaigns. The reason is that there are no private sponsors in Russia, and collecting money from abroad is overtly prohibited.  Systemic parties are either incapable of collecting small sums of money or banned from doing so.

Overall, by September 2, registered parties had collected about RUB 2.4 bln, which amounts to RUB 23 or 31 US cents per each voter. At this level of spending, any active campaigning or real competition between the parties simply is not possible.

The parties’ main task is to break the 5% threshold in order to get into the Duma. Throughout the campaign, not a single party from outside the Duma has been able to come close to 5%, according to polling data. New People, Pensioners for Social Justice Party , and Yabloko have come the closest to reaching 5%. Polls indicate that each of these parties may be able to receive between 2% to 4% of the electoral votes.

The situation is even more interesting in the single-mandate districts. There, similarly to party lists, there are not many charismatic candidates, and several candidates have already been removed from the ballots. At the same time, in about 20 out of 225 districts, United Russia has either not nominated a candidate, or has nominated a candidate who is not campaigning at all. In about half of all districts, opposition candidates have not managed to collect more than RUB 1-2 million for the election campaign, which is not nearly enough to conduct a real campaign (most districts in Russia have between 400,000-500,000 voters). It is important to note that nearly all candidates in single-mandate districts have been nominated by the parties. The number of registered self-nominated candidates in 2021 fell to a record low of just 11 individuals (five years ago, there were twice as many). For the most part, these candidates are either spoiler candidates or share the same last name as opposition candidates. However, about 60-80 districts are in cities of more than a million people, such as Moscow, St. Petersburg, and also in protest-Practically, in each of these districts, the opposition has a strong chance to claim victory, either due to an extensive track record of protest voting, or due to a large support base for Smart Voting initiative.

This means that out of 225 single-mandate districts, the opposition may score up to 100. Such forecast can be viewed as both justified and reasonable, and the situation in such district as highly-competitive independently of the roster of registered candidates.

Assessing the Prospects of the Smart Voting Initiative

Despite the Russian government’s attempts to shut it down, the Smart Voting initiative  remains active. Navalny Live YouTube channel continues to release videos, and mailings continue targeting the network of supporters. The website and app are up and running.

On average, each Smart Voting video is viewed by 300,000-400,000 people.  The number of mailing subscribers is not disclosed, but it is clearly over 1 mln people.  

Despite the fact that Smart Voting has not significantly expanded its platforms, its impact has grown manifold. This is due to the fact that as the United Russia approval ratings have plummeted, the vote gap between candidates has shrunk.

As a hypothetical example, let’s consider that, in 2016, with an average rating for United Russia candidates at 42%-44%, and for CPRF candidates at 15%-17%, no initiative similar to Smart Voting, with its 7%-10% boost, would have been able to ensure to shrink the gap to guarantee a victory by a CPRF candidate.

In 2021, with a 27-30% rating for a United Party candidate, and a 15-17% rating for a hypothetical second candidate— 10% would be enough for the Smart Voting initiative would be enough to secure victory in one-fourths of races. One-fourth of 225 districts translates to 50-60 districts. In Moscow, St. Petersburg and cities with million-plus populations, Smart Voting candidates are likely to score victory in most of the races.

Therefore, it is possible to say, that the majority of opposition parties’ candidates who will have claimed victory in September, will do so exclusively due to the Smart Voting initiative. This is not lost on the candidates themselves, who are currently very active in trying to persuade the administrators of Smart Voting to support their campaigns.

The outlook for election observation

Over the past five, a slew of amendments has been adopted into the Russian electorate law, severely restricting the ability to observe elections. New requirements have been introduced for early registration of observers with the Territorial Election Commission (TEC) and Precinct Election Commission (PEC). Independent organizations who had coordinated election observations have been designated as foreign agents. OSCE observers, for the first time in 30 years, have been denied access.

Nevertheless, according to regional coordinators from the Golos movement, citizen electoral observation initiatives have generally endured. None of the interviewed experts could offer an estimate of the number of polling centers that will be closed to independent monitoring, with responses ranging between 35,000-50,000 out of 96,000 districts. Only one thing is sure—despite the deterioration of the general situation with electoral observation, most polling stations will be closed to independent observation organized by the opposition and independent observation efforts. How much space there will be to contest the registered election violations is not yet clear.  

General Outlook for the Elections

In assessing possible election outcomes, we need to highlight several key uncertainties:

  1. How accurately do opinion polls have captured the voters’ attitude? Has it managed to capture the situation accurately, or there may be another black swan event similar to the Navalny-2013 Surprise?
  2. How determined is the Russian government to violate its own rules and unleash violence in the few days remaining before the elections?
  3. What would be the turn-out in Russia’s largest cities?
  4. Will there will be expansion of the election fraud geography (at this moment about 28% of Russian citizens live in regions of outright election falsification)?

Based on the available polling data, it can be concluded that in voting on party lists, United Russia will receive fewer than 50% of the votes, even considering the areas where elections are entirely rigged.

In single-mandate districts, the opposition stands to take between 50 to 100 mandates.

Thus, the overall outcome of the elections is likely to be the following: United Russia will retain its majority in the State Duma but will have to face a prominent and stable opposition faction. Thanks to single-mandate district voting, for the first time in 15 years, the Duma will feature a large number of true opposition legislators (currently, only three deputies out of 225 were elected in the single-mandate districts on their own without any support from the Kremlin).  This offers hope that the Duma will once again become a “place for debate” (one former State Duma speaker opined that the Duma is not a place for debate, and this policy governed the chamber for the past 15 years). In other words, public opposition may return to the State Duma.

The makeup of the deputies core will change, becoming younger, with 30%-50% made up of new deputies, who have not previously been elected to the State Duma. This is important, because the Kremlin has been unwavering in its policy of ensuring most deputies’ indefinite tenure, especially when it comes to systemic opposition deputies such as Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky. It is likely that during this term, the State Duma will see a shakeup of most parties’ leadership as party leaders get older and pass away.

There is some reason for optimism when it comes to the September 19 elections. Most Russian political analysts forecast that the opposition will take between 20 to 40 seats in the Duma. In the best-case scenario, the opposition may take as many as 100 seats in single-mandate districts.

The reason for such optimism is the demographic shift currently underway in Russia, as the largest generation of Russians, the Baby Boomers, or people born between 1951 and 1964, begin to pass away. This generation is the most strong supporter of the incumbent government. However, it. Is also the generation who has borne the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic. In Russia, the level of mortality attributed to COVID now stands at 1 mln people (both from high mortality rates from COVID itself, or from conditions that went untreated during the pandemic).

Russia is also being reshaped by urbanization.  The population of villages and small towns is shrinking, while the population of large cities is growing. Small towns and villages are the concentration of the voter base for the current regime.

Gerrymandering is another important factor. Nearly in all large Russian cities, borders between districts have been spliced, with support from the authorities in small cities compensating for large cities’ protest vote potential (the percent of voters who support the opposition). Traditionally, there are more of them cities than in small towns, and the larger the city, the more votes it has. But once approval ratings for the ruling party and opposition began to even out in the cities, protest cities began funneling their votes into the majority of single-mandate districts nationwide.

Let’s take a look at the Irkutsk region, and the city of Irkutsk. Until 2011, the Irkutsk region included four districts that elected deputies to the State Duma, including one district on the outskirts of Irkutsk, and three constituencies consisting of small cities and villages. For the 2011 elections, the government redrew the districts’ boundaries, and cut Irkutsk itself into three equal portions, each of which was incorporated into various single-mandate districts. This effectively neutralized the protest potential of the Irkutsk voters by diluting it with rural voters in the elections of 2011 and 2016.

However, after the passage of the pension reform, United Russia’s approval rating dropped to the point that even small towns were no longer capable of giving it the edge it needed in elections. One of the most important promises that United Russia and Putin himself made was to not raise the retirement age. The reform was a direct default on that promise and deception of voters.

Now we have a situation where protest vote from Irkutsk feeds not one, but three election districts.

No analysis of this development is available as of now, and yet it clearly greatly improves the outlook for the opposition.

Recommendations:

Considering the conduct of the elections, the international community should consider the following:

  1. Declare the elections —held in violation of rights and freedoms of Russian citizens —as illegitimate and their results as invalid
  2. To not admit or host elected deputies in international government agencies and parliaments
  3. Be prepared to an emergence and quick unraveling of a political crisis in Russia connected to the refusal of the majority of population to accept the announced outcome of the election
  4. Provide support to the opposition and to Russia’s political prisoners; demand their immediate and unconditional release

To abstain from signing agreements with the Russian government even when it is seeking a compromise with the West. Demand the Duma to be disbanded and demand a conduct of a free election where all opposition forces are allowed to run.

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