United Russia and Duma election: Putin party is under pressure

United Russia and Duma elections
The Putin party is under pressure

By Denis Trubetskoy, Kiev

Before the Duma election, which starts on Friday, the Kremlin party United Russia is more unpopular than ever. Nevertheless, she should take a huge victory. Because the pressure on independent media and the opposition critical of Putin is great.

The State Duma, the lower house of parliament, is elected in Russia from Friday to Sunday. For the first time, this election will be held over several days. Officially, the reason is the Corona crisis: Not too many people should gather at the polling stations at the same time. But apparently the several days of voting are also intended to make election observation more difficult. It is practically impossible to find observers for a three-day mission for all polling stations.

For the first time since 1993, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) will not observe the Duma elections. With reference to the Corona rules, Moscow had reduced the number of observers requested from 500 to 60 people – far too few to effectively accompany the election. That is why the OSCE refrains from deploying it. In view of the recently increasing restrictions on freedom of the press and the tough crackdown on the opposition surrounding the imprisoned Alexej Navalny, this development does not come as a surprise.

In addition, the Kremlin United Russia party is currently more unloved than ever before. Even in surveys by state opinion institutes, approval is currently below 30 percent. At least since the unpopular pension reform of 2018, the downward trend has been clearly visible.

Such a bad performance is almost impossible for the party. In its election forecast, which, unlike the standard survey, also includes a second party option and similar factors, the state institute WZIOM sees United Russia at 42 percent. In addition, half of the State Duma consists of direct mandates, most of which are won by candidates from the presidential party – also because the participation of strong opposition candidates is deliberately hindered and prevented.

Kremlin takes action against smart voting

Nonetheless, United Russia is unlikely to achieve the desired constitutional majority of 300 seats (out of a total of 450). This is not an acute problem, because none of the other parties likely to make it into parliament represent a real opposition; they all follow the Kremlin’s line on fundamental issues. But the mass protests in the Siberian city of Khabarovsk, which were triggered in the summer of 2020 by the arrest of Governor Sergei Furgal, have alarmed the power apparatus. Furgal actually belongs to the system-loyal opposition party LDPR. The fact that he suddenly wanted to implement an independent policy was an alarm signal for the Kremlin.

The protests in Siberia also explain the attempts to harm the so-called smart voting strategy of the Kremlin-critical opposition as much as possible. The concept developed by Navalny – in German: Smart Voting – envisages voting for the most promising opposition candidate, even if he belongs to system parties such as the communists or the LDPR. Two years ago, this strategy ensured that 20 of the 45 seats in the Moscow city parliament election did not go to United Russia. It was not a victory, but it was definitely a respectable success of the Kremlin-critical opposition.

Before the Duma election, however, voters have a hard time finding out about the smart voting recommendations. This is also due to the fact that a Russian sheep wool company registered the term “Smart Voting” as a trademark in July. In court, the company was then able to successfully enforce that search engines such as Yandex and Google block the website of the smart voting strategy. Since the beginning of September it has not been available anywhere in Russia. Still, smart voting is expected to play a role in a few constituencies.

Originally, the extra-parliamentary opposition had high hopes for the Duma election. However, this was dampened by the classification of the organizations by Alexej Navalny as extremist, including the Foundation for the Fight against Corruption. At the last minute, the outgoing State Duma also passed a law banning people with ties to extremist organizations from voting. Even if these connections existed before the organization was on the extremist list. This means that theoretically all Navalny supporters can be excluded from voting.

New party in the Duma?

The question of whether the new, liberal Nowyje Lyudi (“New People”) party will be able to enter parliament will also be an exciting question in the Duma elections. She currently sees the WZIOM forecast at exactly five percent. The new party hardly raises hopes of major political changes, however, because it is associated with entrepreneurs from the closest circle around President Vladimir Putin. Rather, the prognosis caused question marks in view of the manageable election campaign of “Neue Menschen”. According to forecasts, other parties not represented in parliament suddenly come together to 19 percent – an astonishing increase that sparked speculation about forgeries in favor of United Russia.

The party loyal to Putin will also benefit from the fact that around 600,000 people in the embattled Donbass in eastern Ukraine, who received a Russian passport in 2019, will be able to vote online this time. All that is required is a Russian pension number, which around half of those affected have. You can vote from home, but also in so-called information centers that are equipped with computers. There, for example, pensioners who are barely familiar with the Internet are to be helped.

Those who do not have a pension number can at least vote in the neighboring Rostov district. On the three election days, buses and trains will run free of charge. The Kremlin party in particular should benefit from this, because the people of Donbass will most likely vote for United Russia. But new facts are also being created in the Eastern Ukraine conflict, as observers assume that representatives of Donbass will move into the Duma, including the former Prime Minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, Alexander Borodaj.