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Seeing Red: Russia's Communist Party Makes Gains In New Duma, But Does It Matter?

A Communist Party rally in Kazan in Russia's republic of Tatarstan in February 2020
A Communist Party rally in Kazan in Russia's republic of Tatarstan in February 2020

Moscow polling station No. 151 was set up on the premises of the state Gulag History Museum, just a short stroll away from blood-curdling testimony of the crimes of Communist Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

Yet, according to official preliminary voting results, the Communist Party won the precinct with nearly 29 percent of the vote, followed by 20.3 percent for the ruling United Russia party.

The Gulag museum polling station results are indicative of a surge in strength for the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), which is set to gain 15 seats in the new State Duma, the lower parliament house, according to preliminary official results from elections marred by evidence of fraud.

According to independent election monitors and to the party itself -- whose leaders still march regularly to place red carnations at Stalin's grave -- the heir to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union actually polled much better in a surprising show of strength compared to recent national elections.

"We went out to all the voters and said: this is what we are offering," said party leader Gennady Zyuganov the day after polls closed. "The voters listened to us. The voters believed us. The voters voted for us." The party fared particularly well in the Far East, the Urals, and the mid-Volga region.

Russian Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov gestures while speaking at a news conference during the parliamentary elections in Moscow on September 19.
Russian Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov gestures while speaking at a news conference during the parliamentary elections in Moscow on September 19.

In the 2016 Duma elections, the Communists polled just over 13 percent and picked up 42 seats in legislature. That was a disastrous dip for them compared to 2011, when they got just over 19 percent and were awarded 92 seats.

According to the preliminary results from the September 17-19 elections, they were close to 19 percent again in the party-list voting but are on track to hold only 57 of the Duma’s 450 seats: They were awarded only nine of 225 single-mandate seats, with United Russia sweeping up 198 of them.

In short, United Russia is set to take 72 percent of the Duma seats after polling just under 50 percent of the party-list vote, while the second-place Communists will have 12.7 percent of the seats with 19 percent of the vote.

According to independent statistician Sergei Shpilkin, United Russia actually received 31-33 percent of the vote.

Analyst Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Moscow Center told Current Time that the scale of the Communist Party’s gains according to official figures would seem to indicate that little will change in the new Duma.

"It isn't good for the Communists to get too many votes because then they would have to explain themselves to the presidential administration," he told Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

"In principle, I think, they will be forgiven for 20 percent. But if suddenly they had 25 or 30 percent, that would already be going too far,” Kolesnikov said. “In that case, Zyuganov would have to admit a new reality and would be constantly fighting to keep his faction in line."

'Changing Party'

A vast increase in the number of mandates for the Communists likely would have forced Zyuganov to include many of the younger party members who have made their political careers locally by relying on genuine public support. Samara regional lawmaker, popular YouTube personality, and up-and-coming Communist Nikolai Bondarenko is one such figure.

Thirty-seven-year-old Moscow professor Mikhail Lobanov -- who lost a single-mandate race to United Russia's Oleg Popov, according to preliminary official figures that he disputes -- could be another. Lobanov's candidacy was supported by the KPRF, although he is not a party member. He sees a changing party, one that could be less amenable to the Kremlin in the long run.

"The KPRF has been under pressure for the last 20 or more years," Lobanov said of the party's role as party of the so-called systemic opposition -- ostensibly opposition parties that generally support the Kremlin in exchange for a share of the perks of power. "Some things that look in my eyes and the eyes of others like unjustifiable compromises are likely the result of this pressure. It is clear that in connection with the radicalization of the KPRF or the radicalization of its rank-and-file membership and some individual deputies, this pressure is going to increase, and repressions may be used against the organization as a whole."

Many supporters of Russia's Communist Party openly support Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
Many supporters of Russia's Communist Party openly support Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

After his significant lead at the polls was reversed when the government released its controversial online-voting results, Lobanov told RFE/RL's Russian Service that he intends to fight the alleged fraud -- and that he is looking beyond the party's leadership for support.

The protest against the elections must include "not only the leaders and deputies of the KPRF," he added, but a new base of support.

"Let's use this opportunity to express the opinions of all those who don't agree with what is going on, who don't agree with what happened in these elections, and who don't agree on other crucial questions that we simply don't talk about in this country," Lobanov said.

The Communists likely benefited from some of the tactics the government used to secure victory for United Russia, which serves as one of President Vladimir Putin’s main levers of power. After the government disqualified all the opposition hopefuls who were associated with imprisoned opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, a significant portion of the electorate was left without candidates or a party to back. Navalny's Smart Voting system -- an election tactic that sought to rally the protest vote around the candidate in each race who was deemed most likely to defeat their United Russia rival, regardless of party or ideology -- urged voters in many races to back Communist candidates.

At the same time, the government apparently pulled out all the stops to mobilize state-dependent workers, such as teachers and medical, military, law enforcement, and defense industry personnel. And although these voters appeared in droves at the polls, particularly on the first day of voting, many of them also likely were tired of United Russia's decades in power and may have cast their votes instead for the familiar Communist brand.

According to Kolesnikov, the Communists benefited primarily from the "protest vote" both within and outside the traditional United Russia electorate.

"I'm talking about the portion of votes that would, under normal circumstances, be cast 'against all,'" he said. "But, as we remember, that line on the ballot was taken away some time ago."

Kolesnikov also argued that the new Duma will present no real challenge to the Kremlin, which is now focused on the presidential election due in 2024, when Putin's fourth term expires.

"The Duma will have to prove its effectiveness to its bosses," Kolesnikov said. "And this new effectiveness, a deputy's key performance indicators, are more made-up repressive laws, more idiotic laws. And that is exactly how the system will continue to work. We need to brace ourselves for a quite difficult period, even considering that the last year was extremely difficult."

Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky, whose party failed to overcome the 5 percent hurdle to win party-list seats and was not awarded any single-mandate districts, said shortly before the vote that he sees essentially no difference between United Russia and the Communist Party, both of which he argues favor "postmodern Stalinism."

"You ask me what will happen after the elections," Yavlinsky told RFE/RL's Russian Service on September 15. "If the Stalinists win, then it will be modern Stalinism with all its 'foreign agents' and 'undesirable organizations.' The constitution has already been changed. Everything is in place for this.”

“The joking around ended a year ago when they changed the constitution,” he added, referring to amendments that, among other things, gave Putin the option of seeking reelection in 2024 and 2030. “It’s just that not very many people understood this."

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service and Current Time

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