Largesse is easy when your team is top of the league. That’s one message ahead of September’s parliamentary elections in Russia, as more than 100,000 candidates from 45 parties and movements vie for seats in the State Duma. These include candidates backed by President Vladimir Putin’s old archrival, evidently allowed to run after a gracious nod from the Kremlin.
Broader opposition forces will take part, mostly ineffectually apart from the Communists, the leftist but pro-Putin Just Russia Party, and the ultra-nationalist LDPR, which tends anyway to back the government on key issues. The liberal camp remains pitifully disunited and still cringing after a sex scandal around one of its leaders.
But it is the participation of 18 candidates promoted by exiled former oil tycoon and Putin nemesis Mikhail Khodorkovsky that shows the Kremlin’s confidence in the ‘right’ outcome: that the ruling United Russia Party will be firmly reinstalled in the 450-seat house with no upsets, even amid a continuing recession and the worst drop in wages in 20 years.
“Things are so tightly controlled that even a mouse couldn’t sneak past,” Khodorkovsky told Bloomberg in an email. “So there’s plenty of scope to find a middle path between free and fair elections and totally rigged ones.”
All but one of 19 candidates that Khodorkovsky supports have been cleared to run, even though he continues to oppose Putin’s rule from overseas since his release from a Russian jail in 2013.
More worrying for the authorities appears to be the risk that economic hardships will erode support among core supporters, including many senior citizens who have been at the sharp end of rising prices and shrinking incomes. Despite a critical shortage of budget funds, the government on August 23 slightly tempered its decision not to index pensions until next year by announcing a one-off payment of RUB5,000 ($77) to each pensioner.
“Budget execution is facing difficulties and the deficit could exceed the target 3% at an oil price of $40 per barrel, but we need to remember the needs of the people hit by inflation,” Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said of the distinctly underwhelming gesture.
“It seems a one-off payment is the maximum the government can suggest to its most loyal voters – the pensioners,” BCS Equity analysts commented in a note, adding that the effect is likely to be limited due to the modest payment and delayed schedule.
“Budget stability appears to be taking priority over social obligations, even in an election year,” said Alfa Bank, which had been concerned that a possible pension increase this autumn could threaten any further interest rate cut by the Central Bank of Russia (CBR) in September.
But holding back on pensions and eschewing the customary pre-election splurge on social spending again underscores the authorities’ faith in the outcome of the polls, which are widely regarded as a rehearsal for the 2018 presidential poll.
For voters, other considerations will also prevail in the polling booths on September 18. Russians are realists and know their leaders’ track record for securing results under what the Kremlin openly terms Russia’s “managed democracy”.
In a recent survey by the Levada Center, half of the respondents expected the elections to be rigged in some way, mainly in favour of United Russia. People have not forgotten the highly suspect 98-99% of votes for the party sent up to Moscow by loyal election officials in Chechnya and other Russian republics in the 2011 elections. This sparked the biggest protests of Putin’s rule, although these were eventually locked down and some of their participants and leaders locked up.
Increasingly evident is the waning enthusiasm for Western-style democracy in a country that is more used to being ruled by the traditional silnaya ruka, or “strong hand”. The majority of Russians are “people infected with paternalism, they turn their responsibilities over to their bosses, they want someone else to make decisions for them, and they are satisfied with the monocentric system of power”, political scientist Konstantin Kalachev told Vedomosti daily.
The Levada Center also found that the number of Russians who believe they have no impact on government decisions has hit a 10-year high, both at a local (81%) and national (87%) level.
Heavies at the ready
Meanwhile, Russia’s continuing stand-off with the West over Ukraine helps keep Putin’s popularity rating around the 80% mark. But in case things do get out of hand as in 2011 the Kremlin can potentially fall back on the new national guard, the formation of which was announced in April at Putin’s orders.
Answerable directly to the president and commanded by his former bodyguard, the force is being built up on the basis of existing police troops, a militarised section of domestic law enforcement that includes aviation units, and will have rapid reaction forces in every Russian region. Not that they are expected to be deployed in anticipated election unrest – the unsuccessful protests five years ago made it clear that announced voting results are final.
“If you can go to jail for participating in protest rallies, people won’t participate,” Levada Center deputy director Alexei Grazhdankin commented about the growing apathy and distaste of voters for the political process. 80% of poll respondents said they are not prepared to take an active role in politics, the most common reasons being that “nothing can be changed” (29%), and “lack of time” (28%), and “politics is not the job of ordinary people” (28%).
Which all bodes well for the creation of a compliant legislature before Putin, 63, runs for a fourth term that would keep him in power until 2024.