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Russia State Duma election will boost authoritarianism, experts say


A bus drives past a United Russia campaign poster put up ahead of the elections to the Russian State Duma of the 8th convocation scheduled for September 17-19.

TASS / Getty Images Russia is holding elections to its State Duma (lower house of the parliament) starting Friday. Experts believe that this vote will strengthen President Vladimir Putin’s influence in the Kremlin.| TASS | Getty Images

Russia will hold elections to the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, from Friday and experts expect the vote to consolidate President Vladimir Putin’s power base in the Kremlin.

Most experts believe that United Russia will win the “convincing victory”, which is happening between September 17 and 19. However, one analyst said that it “heralds greater authoritarianism”.

The Kremlin wants to preserve a constitutional majority and ensure that the vote is legitimate, as well as avoid protests of any kind. “It is unlikely that the cabinet will change or the government will alter its policy after the election,” Andrius Tursa (Central and Eastern Europe advisor at Teneo Intelligence) stated in a note before the polls.

Russia has a population of around 108 millions. They have the right, for five years, to elect 450 members from the State Duma. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, voting will be conducted over three days. United Russia has been the dominant party in the country for decades and it enthusiastically supports Putin although he has run as an independent candidate since 2018.

Adeline Van Houtte, Europe analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, noted Wednesday that the vote will be an important test for United Russia given insufficient financial support for businesses and households, together with a weakening labour market that has dented the party’s popularity in recent years.

“United Russia currently polls at about 30%. That’s a substantial drop from 2016 Although it has poor ratings, United Russia still holds a large lead over its largest rivals. United Russia and its pro-Kremlin affidacies will continue to hold a substantial majority of the Duma.

Crackdown on opponents

Analysts expect there to be little transparency when it comes to electoral standards given increasingly limited press freedom and efforts to suppress and neutralize political opposition in Russia — most notably, the imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his supporters.

Van Houtte stated that a significant crackdown against real and apparent opponents has intensified ahead of the parliamentary elections, “and will likely continue after.”

Russia has continued to dismantle the opposition and supporters of Navalny, despite having imprisoned him earlier in the year.

Three associations that were linked to Navalny’s political activities were declared illegal and labeled as “extremist”. This means any members or supporters can go to prison and cannot run for office.

Tursa explained that “considering the minimal presence of international observators and a broad crackdown on opposition, independent press and civic organisations during the past year”, the next election would be the most transparent and competitive in President Vladimir Putin’s 20+ years of rule.” Tursa also stated that United Russia still had the potential to win an absolute majority of seats, as well as a constitutional majority at the lower chamber, despite recent popularity declines.

Token opposition

Russia analysts say the election has the appearance of a democratic vote but that, in reality, it is closely controlled by the state and other parties on the ballot paper are token opposition parties approved by the Kremlin.

Tursa pointed out that “so-called systemic parties” currently exist in the State Duma. He cited the Communist Party of the Russian Federation and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. Also, Just Russia-For Truth, as well as the new New People party, which targets urban voters who are dissatisfied. He stated that the parties are not “genuine opposition”.

Tursa stated that the Duma would continue to support the Kremlin as a result.

Tursa explained that there were three main goals for the Kremlin. The first is to “reaffirm United Russia’s undisputed power over the State Duma through maintaining a constitutional minority, which has symbolic and practical significance before the 2024 presidential elections.”

Secondly, the Kremlin wants “to maintain legitimacy among political elites and the wider electorate by ensuring good turnout, a credible outcome of the vote, and limited reports of any electoral irregularities”

And thirdly, it wants to avoid widespread protests such as those seen after the 2011 legislative election or in neighboring Belarus last year, Tursa said.

How about the economy?

Tursa stated that major changes to the cabinet’s or government’s policy directions are unlikely because the program of the ruling party continues key areas like the well-being and development of Russia’s infrastructures, as well as protecting the country’s foreign interests.

Capital Economics’ emerging markets economist Liam Peach agreed that United Russia would retain its majority. However, he noted that the country’s “political background is fragile” which could lead to more government intervention in the economy.

Over the past five year, public support has fallen sharply for United Russia and President Putin is at a near-record low. In a Wednesday note, he suggested that the stagnation of real incomes in 2013 might have contributed to this.

“A key implication of this tension is that the government has taken an increasingly interventionist approach in the economy in an effort to support households. Social welfare provision has been a major priority of the government. Before September’s election, cash payments were made to children and families as well as military personnel.

Peach said his team believed the emphasis on social support will become permanent in Russia.

Peach said that the shift toward higher social spending was rooted in the pre-pandemic period and was present alongside the plans of President Putin to amend Russia’s constitution. The crisis has passed, and the economy is recovering from the oil price rebound. It seems like the government now wants to revive these plans and push for higher living standards.