September 9, 2021


RUSSIA: Upcoming State Duma election heralds more authoritarianism

BY Andrius Tursa

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The ruling United Russia (UR) party is set to achieve a convincing victory in the upcoming election to the State Duma (lower house of parliament) on 17-19 September. The Kremlin’s objective is to retain a constitutional majority, ensure the vote’s legitimacy, and avoid large-scale post-election protests. Major changes in the cabinet or the government’s policy direction are unlikely after the vote.

Around 108mn voters will have a right to elect 450 members of the State Duma for a five-year term. Voting will take place over a three-day period, mainly for epidemiological reasons. Under a mixed election system, half of the mandates are allocated via proportional representation from party lists in a single nationwide constituency with a 5% threshold. The other half is elected in single-mandate constituencies under the first-past-the-post system.

Considering the limited presence of international observers and a sweeping crackdown on the opposition, independent media, and civic organizations during the past year, the upcoming election will be the least transparent and competitive during President Vladimir Putin’s 20+ years in power. Despite a recent slump in popularity, UR is set to secure an absolute majority of seats and could retain a constitutional majority (two-thirds or 300/450 mandates) in the lower chamber.

Besides UR, opinion polls show that the three so-called systemic opposition parties currently represented in the State Duma – the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, and a Just Russia- For Truth – are set to pass the 5% threshold in the nationwide constituency. One potential new parliamentary party is the New People, which is targeting disappointed urban voters. However, the party does not represent a genuine opposition either. As a result, the Duma will remain strongly supportive of the Kremlin.

The Kremlin will try to balance three inter-related objectives in the upcoming vote: (1) to reaffirm UR’s undisputed control of the State Duma by maintaining a constitutional majority, which holds practical and symbolic significance ahead of the 2024 presidential election; (2) to maintain legitimacy among political elites and the wider electorate by ensuring good turnout, a credible outcome of the vote, and limited reports of any electoral irregularities; (3) to avoid widespread protests such as seen after the 2011 legislative election or in neighboring Belarus in 2020. While a host of issues ranging from the socio-economic situation to questionable electoral processes and the mishandling of the pandemic could trigger public unrest, the sidelining of Alexei Navalny and his team – the most influential protest organizers in recent years – makes such a scenario less likely. Moreover, a recent Levada survey showed that the protest momentum in Russia has waned significantly since the start of 2021.

Major changes in the cabinet or the government’s policy direction seem unlikely. The UR’s electoral list is led by veteran politicians such as foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and defense minister Sergei Shoigu. Also, the ruling party’s program focuses on long-standing priorities such as the well- being of families, the infrastructure-led development of the regions, and the protection of Russia’s interests in the international arena. Policy continuity implies an increasingly precarious and unpredictable business environment for foreign investors as tensions with the West will persist, and authorities are set to pursue protectionist economic policies at home. One example is the increasingly rigid regulatory environment for foreign tech and social media companies, many of which are subject to regular financial penalties and restrictions on various grounds.

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