The Russians will head to the polls from Friday for parliamentary elections that could serve as a platform for popular anger against the economy, crackdown on dissent and the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. But the ruling United Russia party is likely to find a way to maintain a stranglehold on its control of the State Duma.
While stifling political opposition and independent media, the Kremlin is trying to solve a simple mathematical problem: how can it support the numbers of United Russia, which votes at almost historic levels, without provoking the kind of protests that have erupted incidents of gross electoral fraud in 2011.
Ahead of the vote, which will take place over three days, the Communist Party received growing support, while the other opposition behind Alexei Navalny, the jailed Kremlin critic, sought to consolidate through a “smart vote” effort. which mainly identified Communist candidates. like the strongest challengers.
“There are a lot of people who are unhappy,” said Anastasia Bryukhanova, an independent candidate from one of the country’s most opposing districts northwest of Moscow. “The biggest problem remains the lack of belief in our own power, a lack of belief in the elections themselves. The biggest battle is getting people to the polling station and at least trying to resist. “
The Russian Communist Party has seen its polls surpass 19% in recent weeks, largely due to stagnant wages and rising prices. It has also sought to broaden its appeal, attracting younger candidates from the party’s youth wing or involving foreigners in the one-round majority vote (FPTP) in local constituencies.
But the party has often aligned itself with United Russia and is still led by the same leader, Gennady Zyuganov, who ran against Boris Yeltsin in 1996. While he opposed Vladimir Putin’s proposal to renew his presidential term in last year’s constitutional referendum, he was often ridiculed as “pocket opposition”.
“A lot of people say that in their opinion, the leadership of the Communist Party often compromises … they don’t trust them,” said Mikhail Lobanov, party candidate in a district in western Moscow, in an interview. televised this week. “I think the Communist Party and its leadership must change: they must become more radical, more decisive. Don’t give in to the pressure. And then he can give back the support of people who have turned away from it. “
United Russia, meanwhile, saw its support plummet, with less than 30% of Russians telling state polls they would vote for the ruling party. To maintain its current constitutional majority (it has 336 deputies out of 450 in the current Duma), the party will rely on winning FPTP constituencies, an election format that has been extended in recent years to 225 of the 450 seats open to the Duma.
In Moscow, United Russia presented People’s Popular Initiative candidates, such as Liza Alert, a nonprofit search and rescue organization, to attract votes. Putin also approved cash distributions to families and members of the military ahead of the vote, and local governments are offering prizes such as new apartments, cars and gift certificates to those who register to vote. in line.
The main opponents of the government have been imprisoned, disqualified or expelled from the country, including Dmitry Gudkov, a former member of the Duma. He has also sought to divide the opposition vote, in some cases leading doppelgangers who can siphon valuable ballots in close races. Two opponents of Boris Vishnevsky, a veteran St. Petersburg lawmaker critical of the Kremlin, even changed their name and appearance to mislead voters on the ballot. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said in an interview.
Past votes, especially in 2011, have been marred by ballot box stuffing and other crass efforts to secure not only a United Russia victory, but a landslide for the ruling party. The biggest change to this year’s voting is that it will take place over three days and also online, which maximizes turnout and makes it extremely difficult to confirm that the number of ballots matches the number of voters. Golos, an election NGO that has been appointed a foreign agent by the Russian government, said only 50% of the country’s constituencies will have independent observers.
When all else fails, United Russia hopes that opposition infighting will split the protest vote and offer victory to a friendly candidate.
Bryukhanova, a rare independent on the ballot in Russia, was recently backed by Navalny’s smart voting system, snubbing another liberal candidate from the established Yabloko party, albeit somewhat ineffective.
“I consider the decision in our district to be a big mistake,” wrote Marina Litvinovich, his opponent. “But it would be wrong to decide for [voters]. If you wanted to support “smart voting” then vote for the candidate he suggests. If you want to support me, vote as your heart tells you.
Those who do will find themselves overwhelmed in the Duma. But Bryukhanova said it was worth it. “First of all, it’s about symbolism. To show that it is possible. To show that a politician like me with my opinions… can win these elections, even with all their violations.