Russia’s Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) is likely to get a big bump in this weekend's Duma election after opposition activists Team Navalny threw its weight behind most of its candidates as part of its “smart voting” strategy.
Smart voting is where Team Navalny endorses the candidate most likely to defeat the candidate from the ruling United Russia Party – irrespective of their party, policies or reputation. The goal is simply to keep the party of power out of power.
The KPRF is part of the so-called systemic opposition, the second-biggest party in the Duma that while nominally in opposition, tends to vote with the government on all the big issues.
Team Navalny released its list of candidates that swing voters should support on September 15, 48 hours before voting begins and after the deadline for any candidate to withdraw their name from the race to ensure the Kremlin doesn't remove Team Navalny’s preferred choice.
Of the 225 names put forward by Team Navalny as having the best chance of defeating the United Russian candidate 137 of them, or 60%, are from the Communist Party. A total of 450 seats are being contested in a mixed system of party lists and single mandate seats.
Team Navalny is the loose organisation that has been campaigning against the Kremlin and is headed by the jailed anti-corruption activist and opposition politician Alexei Navalny. The organisation was named extremist over the summer and broken up by its own leaders to protect its members from possible arrest and jail. Most of the leadership has fled into exile, from where it continues to organise against the Kremlin. Its app has been shut down on the Kremlin’s orders, but Russians can still access the Navalny channel on the Telegram messaging service.
The KPRF dates from before the collapse of the Soviet Union and is the only party in the opposition with a deep and widespread grassroots organisation. Moreover, many Russians remember the Soviet Union fondly. While it provided few luxuries, the system did provide cradle-to-grave support and life was easier than in modern Russia, if not as materially satisfying. Older voters, in particular, tend to vote en masse for the KPRF.
The Team Navalny endorsement has become a key factor in the upcoming race as the opposition remains extremely fissiparous and attempts to bring the opposition into a united front to fight against United Russia have all ended in abject failure.
As many opposition candidates fight against other opposition candidates and refuse to agree on a single name, they end up splitting the liberal vote and handing the election to the United Russia candidate who can win even with a very poor showing.
For many opposition leaders, winning the Team Navalny endorsement will deliver a big block of votes and allow them to both defeat the other opposition candidates as well as the United Russia candidate.
The Communist Party has been gaining in the polls in recent weeks and seen its level of popularity rise from around 13% the start of the summer to just over 22% now – its highest level in recent years. At the same time, United Russia has become deeply unpopular and seen its popularity fall from around 28% at the start of summer to about 60% now.
If the KPRF can win the same proportion of seats that would be a significant improvement on the 13.3% the party won in the last 2016 Duma elections. That worries the Kremlin, as together with the seats that will go to the other systemic opposition parties, that might prevent United Russia from winning a minimum of 226 seats it needs to take an absolute majority, which gives it control of all the crucial Duma committees that actually make the law.
Nevertheless, even if the KPRF improves its share of the number of seats, the party is unlikely to change is collaborative stance to the government as long as the current leadership, headed by Gennady Zhuganov, remains in charge. But the improving electoral performance has caused tensions within the party as the lower cadres have become increasingly ambitious and want to become more active in real politics. That could lead to a revolt in the party against the current leadership, something the Kremlin would be keen to avoid.
And the KPRF may not do as well as its poll numbers indicate, as the vote is widely expected to be rigged. Russia’s elections are a hybrid system where there is still significant genuine voting, as the Kremlin cannot afford to inject too many fake votes, as that results in mass protests, as was the case in the 2011 elections. The Kremlin needs to win as many real votes as possible.
But at the same time, the vote count is manipulated at the margins to ensure United Russia crosses some key thresholds and secures its majority. The rules have been changed for these elections, which will be held over three days, not one, and electronic voting has been introduced in seven districts. Both changes make it much more difficult for observers to catch ballot stuffing and the electronic voting makes it impossible to check if the numbers have been manipulated.