They’ve been dubbed Russia’s “dullest elections in a decade”, with the ruling United Russia sure to dominate. But coming 18 months before Vladimir Putin is expected to run for his fourth term as president, the September 18 polls to parliament are a crucial test of support for the Kremlin-led establishment, its control of the media and public discourse, the population’s loyalty amid economic hardship, and one key question: Does Russia’s opposition still have a spine?
All of this will converge to make or break any potential challenge to Putin’s extended tenure as president until 2024. Given his current 80% popularity rating, he seems invincible and even indispensible to Russia, yet it is this notion that has come under fire on the eve of the State Duma vote.
Exiled Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who is backing 18 opposition candidates that were surprisingly approved to run this Sunday, announced a quest to find Russia’s next president, asking citizens to nominate potential leaders via his project “Vmesto Putina” or “Instead of Putin”.
“For many years, Kremlin spin doctors have told the people of Russia that there is no alternative to Putin,” the project website says. “We want to show that among 145mn Russians, we have people who are able to take up the post.”
Thirteen figures were put forward for consideration, without their consent and to the dismay of some. A notable name from the existing opposition camp is the co-leader of Parnas party and former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who caused further divisions in the already splintered opposition when a very unflattering sex tape emerged in April of him being secretly filmed with fellow opposition member Natalya Pelevine. This was perceived by many as an FSB security service operation to undermine both, and seems to have worked.
Meanwhile, the earlier jailing and criminal record of another prominent Kremlin opponent, anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, automatically excludes him from holding office in Russia.
The most vehement attack on United Russia’s hegemony came in August from opposition member Ilya Yashin, who published a 65-page report titled, “The Party of Criminal Russia”, accusing the party of representing organised crime and being linked to money-laundering and mass murder. But while some charges sound plausible, Yashin’s report was not only brushed off by United Russia, but also disowned by his colleagues in Parnas.
One person who could still have made life awkward for the powers is former deputy prime minister and Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov. But he was shot dead near Red Square last year in a contract killing.
So with the old-school liberal Yabloko party of Grigory Yavlinsky also having scant chances of scraping into the 450-seat Duma, the new assembly will also likely be made up of four forces: United Russia, and three smaller parties known as the “systemic opposition” – the Communist Party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s ultra-nationalist LDPR, and Just Russia. However, while providing a semblance of competition, these tend not to oppose the Kremlin on key issues.
Yabloko’s best contribution to the elections might be Yavlinsky’s campaign ad reminding Russians that their pen stroke on the ballot still counts. Taken inversely (and not how he meant it), this means ordinary Russians can still do something to register their rejection of current policy or even to deliver a blow against Putin – by not voting at all. Since a strong United Russia showing depends also on high turnout numbers, for dissatisfied voters, “their most powerful weapon is simply not to turn up”, argues bne IntelliNews columnist Mark Galeotti.
The most recent serious projections show United Russia’s support has fallen to 31%, below the 35% threshold it would need to secure a majority in the chamber given the electoral rules, Galeotti notes, but adding, “Does this matter, given that other pseudo-parties exist to make up the shortfall?”
The elections will be 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. Above all, the Russian authorities are determined to avoid a repeat of the parliamentary elections in late 2011, when allegations of electoral fraud led to huge protests in Moscow.
But in another sign of the authorities’ confidence in the “right” outcome this time around, Central Election Commission head Ella Pamfilova pledged to ensure the maximum transparency in the polls and penalties for any ballot rigging.
“It would be irresponsible of me to claim that these are sterile, absolutely transparent and absolutely perfect elections. I’m sure of certain things: these elections will be more transparent than in the past, and they will be transparent to the utmost extent possible – I guarantee this,” Pamfilova, Russia’s former human rights commissioner, said in an interview posted on the NTV television channel’s website on September 12.
As for Khodorkovsky’s project to challenge Putin in 2018, the Kremlin reacted with offhand disdain: “It is a project which is being developed by people who are already irrevocably cut off from Russia, what’s going on here, and from the Russian agenda. We do not see anything of interest in this project at all,” said Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov.