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Crushing Victory, Low Turnout -- Six Russian Election Takeaways

  • Steve Gutterman

A woman casts her ballot in front of a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin at a polling station at a local school in Moscow on September 18.

A woman casts her ballot in front of a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin at a polling station at a local school in Moscow on September 18.

The ruling United Russia party won the September 18 State Duma elections by a landslide, according to official results. United Russia is on track to win well over 300 seats in the lower house of parliament, far more than the 238 it holds now. The three other largely loyal parties in the current Duma will also remain, while liberal Kremlin opponents were kept out. Here are six key takeaways from the elections:

Putin's Tightening Grip

President Vladimir Putin said the dominant United Russia party got a "good result" -- and that may be an understatement. With well over 300 State Duma seats in the hands of his loyal party, according to projections, Putin heads into the 2018 presidential election with even tighter control over the legislature -- one of the chief tools of his rule. He can use the Duma at will to enact legislation designed to protect his hold on power, guarantee its extension, and thwart potential rivals.

Putin at any rate would have no problem winning a new six-year Kremlin stint if he seeks reelection, as expected. But under the constitution he would be unable to run again until 2030, when he will be 78, making him something of a lame duck the moment his fourth term begins. A constitutional majority makes it easier for Putin to rewrite the rule book -- whether he wants to engineer a trouble-free succession, remain president for life, or choose some other path to maintain power.

Turnout Trick Works...

With Russia's economic problems denting the reputation of a party whose strong suit has always been Putin's support, the Kremlin uncorked several measures to keep United Russia from losing its hold on the Duma. Chief among them, observers say, were efforts to ensure a low overall turnout, including by moving the elections from December to September, shortening the campaign, and catching voters at the tail end of summer when they would be less likely to vote. This gave more weight to the ballots of voters vulnerable to manipulation, such as state workers, soldiers, and even psychiatric-hospital patients.

This tactic appears to have worked: Official nationwide turnout was 47.81 percent, far short of the 60 percent recorded in 2011, when the state had to turn to what critics say was massive fraud to boost United Russia's result, sparking big protests that unnerved the Kremlin. Turnout was even lower in big cities where government opponents and Russians eager for change are concentrated: About 35 percent in Moscow, a record low, and even lower in Putin's hometown of St. Petersburg.

...Or Does It?

For United Russia, the low turnout comes at a potentially high price in terms of legitimacy. When putting down liberal opponents, Putin frequently touts the importance of majority rule, but the simple mathematics of this election mean that the Duma will be representing less than half of Russia's voters for the first time in its post-Soviet history. Low turnout means that while United Russia will have more seats in the new Duma, its popular mandate is weaker than it was before. That may not be much of a headache for Putin, who is enjoying approval ratings above 80 percent and can use that popularity gap to keep United Russia in line by reminding the party that it serves at his pleasure -- not the other way around.

But the low turnout creates another problem for Putin. While the Kremlin cast these elections as a step forward for democracy, it has left millions of Russians without a voice, potentially reinforcing the feelings of powerlessness and disenfranchisement that fueled the protest movement of 2011-12.

Opposition Blues

For the first time since 2003, half the 450 Duma seats were filled by direct elections in individual "single-mandate" district races rather than by party list. This change was tantalizing for Kremlin opponents because it cracked the door to the Duma open, in theory enabling independent candidates -- and those whose parties had no chance of clearing the 5 percent threshold in the party-list voting -- to win seats.

In practice, that didn't happen: Not a single liberal opposition candidate won a seat. Dmitry Gudkov, the last liberal opposition lawmaker left in the current Duma, lost a Moscow race to Gennady Onishchenko, a controversial and Kremlin-loyal former chief public-health official, and Maria Baronova, one of several candidates backed by exiled former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, also fell short.

The elections leave both politicians and citizens who oppose Putin with no clear answer to a question that divided the opposition before the vote: Is it better to take part in the elections, hoping to force change against the odds, or to steer clear of what Kremlin foes like Garry Kasparov call a sham in which any participation only plays into Putin's hands. Meanwhile, the Kremlin is likely to claim that it took a step toward greater democracy and point at the result as evidence that its liberal opponents have little public backing.

Hidden Threat?

While no liberal opposition figures won a Duma seat from a "single-mandate" district, several candidates whose resumes suggest they will be staunch Putin loyalists did. Along with Onishchenko, they include anti-gay-rights St. Petersburg lawmaker Vitaly Milonov and pro-Kremlin TV journalist and executive Pyotr Tolstoi. But the revival of the "single-mandate" races could pose a threat to Putin's power, at least in the long run. Some Kremlin critics argue that because they had to win votes and outperform specific opponents, these Duma deputies will be more independent -- and less likely to toe the line -- than those who are beholden to United Russia after being granted seats based on their places on a party list.

Foreign Factor

After evidence of widespread violations in the December 2011 State Duma elections sparked street protests and criticism from the West, the 2016 vote -- the first since Putin's return to the presidency in 2012 after four years as prime minister -- was seen as a chance for the Kremlin to mend its reputation by holding a clean vote. It came at a crucial time, with Russia seeking to decrease its isolation and shed Western sanctions over its aggression in Ukraine by dismantling U.S. and EU unity over the measures. Longtime rights activist Ella Pamfilova replaced the previous Central Election Commission chief, Vladimir Churov, whose seeming ability to conjure up votes for the Kremlin earned him the nickname "the magician."

But the elections appear unlikely to sway foreign governments that see Putin's Russia as deeply undemocratic. There are plenty of allegations of fraud, ranging from multiple voting and ballot-stuffing, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) findings were far from a vote of confidence: The head of the OSCE monitoring mission said the biased state media, the Kremlin's tightening grip on civil society, and restrictions on basic rights marred the election.

In Western eyes, its legitimacy is also undermined by the fact that voting was held in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014 after deploying troops and staging a referendum condemned by a majority of countries. The United States said on September 17 that it "does not recognize the legitimacy, and will not recognize the outcome, of the Duma elections planned for Russian-occupied Crimea."

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