MOSCOW (AP) – After a few weeks of aimless election campaign, but months of unrelenting official steps to shut down major opposition parties, Russia is holding three days of parliamentary elections this weekend, which are unlikely to change the country’s political character.
It is unlikely that United Russia, President Vladimir Putin’s party, will lose its dominance in the State Duma, the elected lower house of parliament. The main questions to be answered are whether the party will maintain its current two-thirds majority, which will allow it to amend the constitution; whether anemic turnout tarnishes the reputation of the party; and whether the Smart Voting initiative of the imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny is proving to be a viable strategy against it.
“These elections have very little intrigue … and, in fact, they will not leave much of a mark on political history,” Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told The Associated Press.
With 14 parties running for half of the Duma’s 450 seats selected on party lists, the election looks like it’s really competitive. But the three parties, apart from United Russia, which are expected to release the 5% support required for a seat, rarely challenge the Kremlin.
The Kremlin wants control of the new parliament, which will still exist in 2024, when Putin’s current term expires and he has to decide whether to run again or choose another strategy to stay in power.
The other half of the seats are elected in individual constituencies where independent candidates or candidates from small parties like the liberal Yabloko might stand better. The Navalny team’s smart voting strategy could also find its way into these seats.
The program bypasses ideology to undermine “United Russia” by simply advising voters which candidate other than the ruling party is the strongest in a single-seat race.
It’s essentially a defensive strategy.
“A vote to the detriment of United Russia is not a meaningful goal, not a goal of choosing another candidate whom you ideologically support,” said Kolesnikov. But it showed its strength when first used in 2018, when opposition candidates won 20 of 45 seats on Moscow City Council, and a year later, when United Russia lost its majorities on the councils of three major cities.
However, it is unclear how widely it will be used this year after authorities blocked access to its website. The service remains available through apps, but Russia has threatened Apple and Google with fines for removing the apps from their online stores. The State Department last week summoned US Ambassador John Sullivan to protest the electoral interference by American “digital giants”.
The site lockdown was the latest move in neutralizing the Navalny Operation, Russia’s most visible and determined opposition organization, which has been able to spark significant protests across the country.
Navalny himself had returned to Russia in January after returning from Germany, where he had recovered from neurotoxin poisoning; he was subsequently sentenced to two and a half years in prison. A court later banned Nawalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and a network of its regional offices as extremist organizations, a ruling that prevented individuals associated with the groups from seeking public office and exposed them to long prison terms.
The Russian authorities also blocked around 50 websites run by his team or his supporters for allegedly spreading extremist propaganda.
In August, Russia added the Golos independent voice surveillance group to its list of foreign agents, a move that does not block its work but strongly suggests that it should be viewed with suspicion.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, whose election observation missions are widely regarded as authoritative, will not send observers to parliamentary votes as Russia has imposed excessive restrictions.
In addition to the Duma elections, nine Russian regions will elect governors, 39 regions will elect legislatures, and voters in 11 cities will elect city councils.
The electoral commission ordered the vote to be extended to three days, ending on Sunday, to ease the rush at polling stations amid the coronavirus pandemic. Critics say the decision increases the chance of election rigging. Commission chief Ella Pamfilova denies the allegation, saying that there will be “total video surveillance” of the polling stations and that the ballot papers will be kept in secure containers.
Other ethical concerns also hover over the choice. According to the state-funded opinion research institute VTsIOM, more than every tenth employee claims to have given their superiors instructions on voting. In St. Petersburg, a Yabloko party candidate named Boris Vishnevsky, who is running for the Duma and a regional legislature at the same time, discovered that two different men with that name are against him in every race – one of whom is a member of United Russia, so the newspaper Novaya Gazeta.
Although polls show that general support for United Russia is low, the party is expected to ride an overwhelming first place in the new parliament. The independent Center for Current Policy predicts it will have 299 to 306 seats – up from the 343 it currently holds but in the range of the 303 seats required for a constitutional amendment.
The centre’s forecast suggests that most of the seats lost by United Russia would be taken over by the Communist Party, the second largest faction in parliament. But the party largely follows the Kremlin line, as do the other two parties, which are likely to get double-digit seats.
“The communists themselves are not very dangerous,” said commentator Sergei Parkhomenko on Echo Moskvy radio. The party is “a tool to imitate an opposition movement”.
Allegations of widespread electoral fraud sparked major protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg after the 2011 Duma elections. But since opposition groups have been neutered, the prospect of unrest this time around seems unlikely.
“Protests will not take place where we expect them to take place, not when we expect them to take place, and not from those who we expect them to be,” said Parkhomenko.
Olga Tregubova in Moscow contributed to this.
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