Ballot stuffing allegations unlikely to upset United Russia victory in Duma elections

Ballot stuffing allegations unlikely to upset United Russia victory in Duma elections
Russian President Vladimir Putin casts his vote in the 2016 Duma elections.
By Ben Aris in Berlin September 18, 2016

Russia’s party of power United Russia was on course to win an absolute majority in a general election held on September 18, despite clear evidence of ballot stuffing.

The first exit polls as voting ends give United Russia 44.5%, Vladimir Zhirinovsky's nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) 15.3% and Communists (KPRF) 14.9%. The only opposition party that is set to cross the 5% threshold to enter the Duma was A Just Russia which had 8.1% in the exit poll. If these parties maintain these shares in the final count then the make up of the Duma will be almost exactly the same as that of the outgoing Duma. 

The elections have been held under a mixed system: 225 lawmakers will be elected in one-seat constituencies and another 225 will be elected by party tickets, which can see a handful of genuine opposition candidates enter the assembly.

United Russia went into the vote with polls showing 31% of Russians would vote for the party that has dominated the last two Dumas, slightly less than the 35% experts say it needs to win to control half of the seats in Russia’s lower house of parliament. With as few hours to go before the polls close, evidence of blatant ballot stuffing suggests that party of power will be firmly reinstalled for a third time. 

Ballot stuffing should have been harder in this election. Although many independent domestic election observers were barred by stricter registration rules, webcams were to have been installed in all polling stations to improve the transparency and legitimacy of the voting. Voters were also active with phone cameras and recorded a number of infractions that were posted on social media.

One tweet from polling station 1287 (Moscow pr., D.164, Naval School), showed a man in a red jacket forcing dozen of ballots at once into the ballot box.

“Watch the woman on the right at this Russian polling station calmly stuff the ballot box. Democracy in action!” journalist Max Seldon posted on Twitter with a widely shared video clip from the government’s own webcams in one of the polling stations.



The Kremlin’s new pet news agency ran with the headline “No major violations registered during the parliamentary vote.”

The Russian population is under no illusion as to the problems associated with voting in important elections. A third of Russians said in a poll before the vote that they believed it would be fixed.

The satirical Twitter account @darthPutin summed up the problem up with a wry post: “Russia is such an advanced democracy that we've taken 'one man, one vote' to the next level & given him 65 votes.”

Russia’s elections are more about politically important thresholds than the distribution of votes between the parties. Statistical studies showed that the Kremlin added around 5% to the 2007 vote to ensure United Russia had a constitutional majority of two thirds of the seats, as well as adding some 12% in the 2011 to ensure the ruling party hung on to at least a simple majority.

This time round the amount the party is missing is smaller, thanks to the wave of nationalism that has swept the country amid the showdown with the West after the annexation of the Crimea in 2014, and Moscow's short victorious war in Syria in 2015. What is not clear is if the Kremlin intends to twist the vote as it did in 2011, which resulted in the first mass protests in the Putin-era, when more than 100,000 regular Russians took to the streets.

The allegations of ballot stuffing will undermine the already dubious validity of the vote, despite the Kremlin’s efforts to bolster confidence.

But far more politically damaging to the Kremlin than cheating during the vote count is the low turnout.

As bne IntelliNews columnist Professor Mark Galeotti argued in a recent oped, a low turnout undermines the Kremlin’s legitimacy and makes protests more likely. As bne IntelliNews argued in a drill-down into the regional voting patterns during the 2011 election, Russia has a hybrid democratic system where the Kremlin needs to genuinely win about half the votes.

With about half of the vote counted, the turnout seems to be on the low side. In the last two elections turnout has been a very respectable in the mid-60s in percent,  compared with the last two US elections where turnout was in the mid-30s. As of 15:00 Moscow Time the turnout in the Duma vote was Moscow 11.19%,Chechnya  67.43%, in a voting pattern that resembles the 2011 elections. Approximately 35% of eligible citizens cast ballots in the annexed Crimean peninsula. 

“If voter apathy forces #Russia's rulers into even more crude & obvious ballot-stuffing, [it] is a kind of (limited) victory as delegitimises poll,” professor Mark Galeotti tweeted.

As in the last Duma election, the turnout so far has been highest in Chechnya, where the pro-Russian republican leader Ramzan Kadyrov voted in his native village, then danced the traditional Chechen lezginka dance outside the polling station.

The turnout has been the lowest in the capital where Russia’s most sophisticated and Europeanised population lives. It is no coincidence that Moscow was the scene of the biggest street protests in 2011.

Election committee head Pamfilova began the day by saying that a high turnout was important, but as the day wore on it became clear several communities had been under pressure to turn out to vote. Prisons forced inmates to vote, producing a turnout of over 85%, reports Vedomosti daily. Independent civil rights movement Golos said it had received 1768 complaints , mostly from employees claiming their bosses were forcing them to vote.

Listen to bne IntelliNews editor-in-chief Ben Aris discuss the elections with Professor Mark Galeotti in the latest “Windown on the east” bnePodcast here.