Russia elections may tighten Putin's grip on repression

Securing a constitutional majority in the State Duma for United Russia was made possible because of unprecedented steps in the run-up to, and during, the vote.

Expert comment Published 22 September 2021 2 minute READ

What is being claimed by Russia’s political leadership as an honest and overwhelming victory masks clear manipulation, as well as challenges presented by opposition forces in the country. And yet the flagrant rigging of results is more likely to lead to further opposition despondency than mass protests.

Although elections took place at local, regional, and national levels in Russia, it was elections to the State Duma – the lower chamber of the national parliament – which were the main event as the first national-level elections since a marked decline in Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings following deeply unpopular pension reforms in 2018.

They were also the first national elections since the 2020 constitutional changes and support for United Russia – the pro-Kremlin dominant party – hovered below 30 per cent before the vote, making this a key test of the Kremlin’s capacity to unlevel the electoral playing field and get away with it.

Projecting strength and stability

Maintaining a constitutional majority has basic technical advantages for the Kremlin because winning in the lower chamber of the national parliament means the executive can amend the constitution without needing the support of another party. This allows the Russian executive to dominate the legislative branch – as it has become accustomed to doing – and has earned the Duma the moniker of being a ‘rubber stamp assembly’.

Winning in the lower chamber of the national parliament means the executive can amend the constitution without needing the support of another party

But symbolism is no less important because retaining a thumping majority helps sustain the narrative of Kremlin dominance which is important regarding different audiences.

For the opposition, the goal is to hammer home the message that irrespective of whatever challenge they mount – including Team Navalny’s tactical Smart Voting project – the authorities can get the result they want. The principal aim is to further demoralize an opposition already reeling from an unprecedented crackdown in 2021.

For the general population, the goal is to project an image of strength and stability. President Vladimir Putin has thanked citizens for the trust shown through the elections, while allegations of electoral fraud have largely been dismissed as fake by officials, reflecting – they claim – attempts by Western governments of interference.

For the elite, the message is clear. Putin is still very much in charge and people should not be distracted by thinking about a post-Putin future – especially with the 2024 presidential elections emerging on the horizon.

Online voting and manipulation

The Communist Party (KPRF) saw clear gains in the Duma vote, reflecting a rise over recent months in their approval ratings and, perhaps, an effect of Smart Voting endorsements. The KPRF have increasingly blurred the boundary between being a decorative or a real opposition and so these results only increase the importance of seeing whether the party is emboldened by its success at the polls or is further co-opted by the Kremlin.

However, the Communists have not welcomed all official results. In Moscow, the late-in-the-day incorporation of electronic voting results swung what was looking to be an impressive spread of opposition victories into a clean sweep for United Russia instead. KPRF politicians protested in Moscow’s Pushkin Square but did not attract a large number of attendees – although it should be noted the protest was not granted approval by the city authorities.

By its very nature, online voting is more susceptible to manipulation and it looks likely this form of voting will be used more in future elections. So the dispute over its validity in these latest elections is a test before the planned rollout for the 2024 presidential election.

Repression and rising prices

The Kremlin has imprisoned Alexei Navalny, destroyed his movement, and retained control of the national legislature. According to estimates by Golos (the Movement for the Defence of Voters’ Rights) around nine million Russians have been deprived of their right to be electoral candidates as a result of legislative changes, while independent media are labelled as ‘foreign agents’ and opposition organizations as ‘undesirable’ or ‘extremist’.

But the underlying issues which led to growing support for Navalny and the falling approval ratings of United Russia have not gone away. People may now be somewhat accustomed to corruption revelations and footage of ballot stuffing, and egregious violations may become less shocking with repetition. But the spectre of rising food prices has not disappeared and, if the Kremlin cannot tackle this and other issues, the grip of repression is likely to tighten even further to keep criticism, protest, or dissent under control.