The victory for Vladimir Putin and his party United Russia in the three-day parliamentary elections across Russia last weekend was never in doubt. So rigged are the conditions for participation and voting that any genuine opposition has no chance of success. Even so, no effort was spared by the unprecedently unpopular president to ensure none but the tamest opposition could succeed.
Not satisfied with imposing conditions for participation that are unrealisable by genuine opposition candidates, the president insisted on three days of voting and the use of online balloting in a number of areas that is almost impossible to verify, even if observers had been allowed. Social media worldwide showed scenes of ballot boxes being stuffed with voting papers and most notably in Kemerovo, a ‘magic hand’ repeatedly appearing from behind a curtain to fill a box in a polling station.
With Putin’s ratings below 30% in the run-up to the election, the election turnout was the lowest since the collapse of the USSR. With life expectancy falling again and twenty per cent of Russians living below the poverty line, a big majority of the population expresses a preference for the certainties of the past. The Financial Times’ report of 21 September says: “In a recent poll, half of those asked said they would like to return to the Soviet political system, while 62 per cent would like to have a Soviet-style planned economy”.
Vladimir Putin has gone to great lengths to remain in power and avoid retribution for his luxurious lifestyle and that of the ruling elite. But anger against his handling of the Covid epidemic, by which Putin’s immediate entourage has recently been struck down, has added to his vulnerability. Explosions of anger amongst workers as well as young people are rooted in the developing situation.
The report below on the elections was received from a CWI supporter in St. Petersburg.
Between 17 and 19 September, every citizen of Russia had the opportunity to vote in elections to the State Duma, the lower house of the largely powerless Russian parliament. Constitutionally, both houses of this parliament are decisively subordinated to the presidency and his vast, unelected army of bureaucratic minions. These, as usual, stage-managed the election by creating huge and complex barriers to participation on the part of opposition parties, by finding pretexts to exclude candidates opposed to the Kremlin system of government, by falsifying the results and by arresting, gaoling, poisoning or beating up those who complained.
Using these methods, the pro-Putin party, United Russia, won more than two-thirds of the seats in the new Duma (324 out of 450 seats) though its candidates won just under 50% of the popular vote according to party lists, a fall of only around 5% from 2016. This was because 84% of the 225 deputies elected from first past the post, single-member constituencies rather than from party lists went to United Russia. Of course, those candidates standing in single-member constituencies find it easier to disguise their party allegiances.
The so-called Communist Party of the Russian Federation increased its number of seats by 15 to a total of 57, scoring just under 19% of the vote, a five per cent increase. The Liberal Democrats who are chauvinistic and nationalistic (and, in fact, very un-liberal) saw their vote halved and their seats reduced from 39 to 21 (in 2011 they had 56). Just Russia – a party said to be aligned with the British Labour party and the German Social Democrats – saw a small increase in votes and seats to 27, but this came at the cost of a coalition with two other small nationalist parties. Minor parties – mostly ‘liberals’ – and ‘independents’ together took the 21 remaining seats.
From the point of view of technicalities, the main significance of this result is that the two-thirds majority enjoyed by United Russia would make it easier for the president to introduce new constitutional changes of the type passed by referendum in 2020. This allows Vladimir Putin to stand in the presidential elections two more times after his current term expires.
However, a far bigger question is the way in which so many significant political forces active inside Russia were excluded from the election, with the effect that only those prepared to support Putin’s political project have been allowed to participate. Of the 32 parties officially registered with the Russian government, only 14 were permitted to take part in the party-list part of the election which did not have the requirement of gathering nominations from no fewer than 200,000 voters.
Others did have the option of standing in the single-member constituency part of the vote having collected a ‘mere’ 3,000 nominations. The main effect of this was a de-politicising of the election by means of biasing the whole process towards the incumbents. Those parties already represented in various legislative bodies generally did not need to meet the intimidating requirements faced by those entering for the first time. Indeed, the latter were generally faced either with completely impossible administrative demands, or the requirement that they receive the approval and support of their opponents!
This means that relatively few political conclusions should be drawn from the results of these elections. If they express anything, then it is a balance of forces among those parties who support the Kremlin system and Putin’s political project, and who receive a significant part of their income from the state as a result of their elected positions. It tells us little about the strength of these parties relative to any ‘anti-system opposition’ in the country.
Indeed, probably the biggest of the many ‘absences’ in the election was that of Alexei Navalny, a key figure in the 2011-3 protests against the falsification and manipulation of election results. Now excluded from participation in elections – in prison after two heavily disputed criminal convictions – Navalny still hoped to shape the outcome of the vote via a policy of street protests against the rigging of elections, combined with tactical voting for those candidates who were actually allowed onto the ballot who stood the best chance of beating United Russia.
Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation had been in a strong position to execute the first part of this strategy before he was subjected to an assassination attempt whilst onboard a domestic flight in August 2020. Having convalesced in Germany, where doctors confirmed that he had been attacked with a military-grade nerve agent, he was arrested and gaoled upon his return to Russia, supposedly for violating parole conditions. This, combined with a complete failure of the authorities to investigate an act of terrorism aboard an aircraft, led to a wave of street protests throughout Russia in January 2021, which were suppressed with a heavy mobilisation of the police and the armed forces.
With thousands of mostly-youthful activists in gaol, representatives of the so-called pro-system opposition queued up to distance themselves from Navalny. ‘Communists’, nationalists and the ‘patriotic’ left (i.e. Stalinists), with one voice, pronounced him an agent of the West. ‘Liberals’ brought up his abhorrent anti-immigrant views (during the period 2007-10) but they did this to avoid condemning the attempt to murder him or the refusal to investigate it. Navalny’s allies in the Anti-Corruption Foundation could effectively illustrate the huge gulf that separates them from the tame opposition represented in the Duma.
On the other hand, Navalny’s advocacy of tactical voting (which he terms ‘Smart Voting’) ultimately proved to have little effect. Unsurprisingly, no political party that was allowed to participate in the election actually supported his scheme. Thus no actual agreements were made involving candidates withdrawing in the single-member constituencies – the focus of the strategy. Another problem with the strategy was the outright banning of the Anti-Corruption Foundation. All its offices were closed and its app. was banned from Google Play and Apple online stores. This made it difficult for voters who actually supported the strategy to estimate who had the best chance of defeating the pro-Putin candidates.
Consequently, out of 225 such constituencies, only 14 were won by the candidate recommended by the Anti-Corruption Foundation. There was some controversy in the Moscow region where a new electronic voting system gave victories to United Russia in eight constituencies while voting at physical polling stations indicated victories for opposition candidates. Because of this, the Communists declared that they do not recognise the results and held unsanctioned rallies in central Moscow protesting against the irregularities. Many voters complained that they were not able to vote electronically because of technical problems.
The turnout in this election was low – officially at around 50% – even though the voting was spread over three days to maximise voter participation. The low turn-out is despite the fact that in the public sector – including the armed and security forces – and the state-owned enterprises, workers are sent to vote in groups by their bosses. It is technically an illegal practice that is accompanied, in many cases, with suitable instructions regarding who to vote for. In the current election, ‘coerced voting’ appears to have taken on a mass scale, with long queues developing early on Friday morning – the first day of voting – throughout the country. The crowds included detachments of servicemen in uniform.
Most recent Russian elections have been accompanied by allegations of mass ballot stuffing by officials, at times backed up with video evidence. Statistical studies have consistently found an abnormally close connection between higher voter turnouts in particular areas and abnormally high votes for United Russia. The ‘extra’ votes are rarely shared between parties in similar proportion to their support in areas with an average turnout!
Investigation of these issues has been severely hampered through recent legislation, which has branded electoral monitoring and opinion polling organisations based in Russi, such as Golos and Levada, as ‘Foreign Agents’. (A small amount of their income comes from abroad.) This means that bureaucrats administering the election have gained enough confidence to forcibly expel monitors from polling stations and the counts – a situation that makes violations much easier.
One more swindle that appears to be gaining in popularity is the use of spoiler candidates and parties. Thus, the luckless Boris Vishnevsky of Yabloko discovered that there were three of him standing in the same St Petersburg constituency! Two men had obviously been instructed to change their names and modify their appearances to look like him and stand against him. A candidate for the liberal Solidarnost, Ilya Yashin, was subject to the same treatment even though he had been barred from the election under the anti-extremist legislation.
A socialist approach
Some socialist groups in Russia have sought to use their constitutional right to gather nominations with the aim of putting up candidates in single-member constituencies. This strategy would, in principle, provide a legally protected avenue for engaging with the public. But such opportunities are increasingly rare as the police tend to move in at the first sight of political activity in the street, regardless of what the law actually says.
Experiments with western styles of socialist campaigning have merely confirmed what has long since been suspected. The requirement for new candidates to gather 3,000 signatures is merely a pretext for excluding them. It is not just a requirement that candidates establish a proper social base for their candidacy and a proper vote-mobilising party apparatus. The police, in fact, harass and arrest those who try to meet the requirements of the electoral commission and to use grassroots methods.
In this context, some have argued for a boycott of the election, although no mass alternative has been built. The option for voting ‘against all’ has been removed from ballot papers for elections in Russia. Russian socialists have to prepare a programme and organisation to intervene in whatever mass protests can develop in the near future.
They need to draw workers and young people behind a programme to fight for basic democratic rights – free speech, freedom to organise, freedom of assembly and public protests and freedom to organise trade unions and parties that can stand in democratically-run and controlled elections.
If a majority in Russia is for a planned economy, the fight is on for taking the major industries and banks out of the hands of the oligarchs and back into state ownership but with fully democratic control and management in the hands of elected workers’ representatives. The time for such a programme to take on flesh and gather mass support can be approaching.