Will the Kremlin fix the Duma elections and can it get away with it if it does?

Will the Kremlin fix the Duma elections and can it get away with it if it does?
Drill-down into the results of the 2011 Duma and 2012 presidential elections by region.
By Ben Aris in Berlin September 16, 2016

Russians go to the polls this weekend to vote for a new Duma, in what is widely expected to be a fixed vote. The final result is a foregone conclusion: United Russia will be returned as the biggest party. A bne IntelliNews drill-down into the results of the 2011 Duma election shows how United Russia will almost certainly retain its majority, but also highlights how weak the Kremlin’s grip on power is.

Despite the vote rigging the election is important, as the United Russia needs to genuinely win around half the votes. There has been some vote rigging in all the elections of President Vladimir Putin era, but it ranges between 5% and 12% according to post election statistical analysis, as bne IntelliNews has reported in the past.

Unlike in Soviet times, the government cannot simply award itself an 94% victory on an 97% turnout, as the Central Asian states still routinely do. The rule of thumb is the electorate will accept an “adjustment” of around 5% but anything over 10% will send people to the street in protest.

That is exactly what happened in the 2011 Duma election when experts believe the state added some 12% to United Russia’s final tally to get it over the crucial 50% threshold that gives it control of parliament. Election officials manipulating the count typically round up results to a round number, destroying the smooth distribution you would get from a collection of truly random votes in a large sample. The tinkering is clearly visible in the results as spikes around any number that ends with a zero or a five. A similar phenomena was seen in the last Turkish elections in 2015 where the ruling party defied a wide consensus of polls to win a surprise victory.

Russia’s elections are not about who wins how many votes, but about the ruling party crossing key thresholds. United Russia began life in the 2003 elections, headed at the time by the unintelligible prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, but only won 38% of the vote, which is the closest Russia has come to plurality on Putin’s watch. It was subsequently merged with its rival opposition party set up by Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov and former prime minister Evgeny Primakov and was adopted as the party of power.

In the next elections in 2007, United Russia won 64%, just enough to push it over the constitutional majority that allowed the party, in theory, to force through constitutional changes. This ability was Putin’s fail-safe against being sacked by Dmitry Medvedev, who became president in 2008. In that election experts believe that some 5% was added to United Russia’s count to get them over the constitutional threshold.

The 2008 crisis weighed heavily on the 2011 Duma election where United Russia won only 49% of the vote – only it actually won about 37% of the vote, according to experts. The fact the authorities added some 12% to the count was enough to spark the first large-scale public demonstrations in a decade after more than 100,000 people took to the streets of Moscow.

It was a tense moment, but in one of Putin’s more audacious political gambles (and stepping down was another gamble), he allowed the protests to go ahead. OMON special forces lined the marching route in a double line wearing full riot gear, but clearly they had been given orders not to engage the crowd. The hope was after the people had blown off some steam they would go home and the Kremlin was banking on Russia’s real opposition’s inability to present a united front needed to ferment a coloured revolution. Putin’s bet paid off. Since then he has capitalised on a wave of nationalism following the annexation of Crimea and the short victorious military campaign in Syria.

Going into these Duma elections and the latest polls have a United Russia rating of 31%, which is less than the 35% of the total popular vote it needs to get half the seats in the Duma, after all the votes for parties that fail to cross the minimum 5% threshold to get any seats are redistributed amongst the winners.

Getting away with - just 

Will the state tinker with the vote count again and can it get away with it if it does?

The Kremlin has several things going for it. Firstly is if a fix is needed then, thanks to the swell in nationalism, it will need to inject less than 10% that could spark a protest. At the same time, the opposition is in even more disarray than before; an attempt to form a united coalition of opposition parties has splintered in a haze of infighting and recriminations. None of the opposition parties have any chance of getting anywhere near the 5% Duma threshold.

The bigger problem the Kremlin faces is getting United Russia to the simple majority threshold, as it genuinely needs the majority of Russians to vote for its party.

In the last elections the Kremlin was not relying on vote fixing per se by cajoling a few loyal regions to deliver a bloc of votes large enough to ensure United Russia got over the 50% hurdle. Drilling down into the distribution of votes in Russia’s 80 odd regions shows that the Kremlin’s grip on power is actually very weak, there is a large chunk of genuine democracy in Russia and that two thirds of Russia’s voters would rather see someone else in power.



In 2011, United Russia won a clear majority in only a third of the regions (28 out of 80). In two thirds of the rest of the country it got less than 50% and in the last one third United Russia got less than 40% of the vote. United Russia actually lost the vote in the Yaroslav region with 29%, coming second to the communists. The governor there has since been replaced.

The only reason that United Russia managed to clear the 50% hurdle at the federal level was it “won” over 80% of the vote in eight regions and over 90% in four regions — Chechnya, Dagestan, Mordovia and Ingushetia – all miserably poor regions in or near the Caucuses that are run by local strong men and are entirely dependent on the centre’s largesse for survival. The dependency shows up clearly in the level of per capita transfers from the centre to the regions: in 2011 Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia got RUB10,472, RUB11,375 and RUB13,476 per capita respectively vs the average transfer of RUB2,797 for the whole country. Yaroslavl was sent a mere RUB613 per person that year, one of the lowest amounts in Russia.

The Kremlin wins the Duma elections, not from vote rigging but by relying on this large block of votes from a handful of loyal vassals to push the party of power’s tally over the top. And it can easily bully most regions: in 2011 only 11 out of 80 regional budgets were in surplus. This time round about a third of Russia’s regions are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and only nine regions are in profit. 

Clearly this is a very unstable state of affairs. Despite the loyalty of regional bosses like Chechen head Ramzan Kadyrov, these lackeys cannot produce any more votes than they already are so that even a mild drop in approval in the other seven eights of the country will make it impossible for the Kremlin to cover the shortfall by leaning even harder on its most malleable regional governors.

The new voting rules introduced ahead of this election this year address exactly this problem. They have created more single district seats, which in effect means the general election will be fought region by region, reducing the amount of votes that rely on federal level party list voting. The regional governors in the less loyal states are supposed to ensure the support for United Russia in their region doesn't fall from the 2011 result in order to produce a similar result. This new system will also make vote rigging harder to spot, as it will be done at a regional, not federal, level.

This will probably be the last election that can be run along these lines. Part of the trade-off to get regional bosses to deliver United Russia votes will inevitably mean regional bosses will want more say at a federal level. Ironically this could have a positive impact on the way the country is run as many regions are becoming increasingly progressive as they compete for both foreign and domestic investment.

As United Russia’s popularity continues to sink, the only possibility the Kremlin has to retain its grip on power will be to split to fragment its support into several more parties that target special interest groups like small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) or pensioners. That is not exactly democracy, but bne IntelliNews government sources say the process of fragmentation into interest groups inside United Russia has already begun introducing some internal competition and debate. What comes out of this process is a hybrid democracy where the people have some, but not very much, say.

The only other things that comes out of the regional drill-down of the 2012 presidential elections is Putin’s personal popularity is consistently high across the whole country, fluctuating around the 60% mark even in the regions that didn't support United Russia.