MOSCOW -- Here’s the first thing you need to know about the now-concluded election campaign for Russia’s State Duma: It’s been carefully managed from the start, with the opposition largely barred from running and a crackdown on government opponents that shows no sign of abating.
According to preliminary results released September 19, shortly after the last polls closed across Russia’s 11 time zones, United Russia, the party endorsed by President Vladimir Putin, was on track to at least retain its majority in the lower house of parliament.
That’s despite seeing the party’s share of the vote shrink from the 54 percent it won in 2016. And it comes with the party’s popularity sinking to the lowest levels since it was established some two decades ago.
New People, a party formed with alleged Kremlin oversight to introduce fresh faces to politics, was expected to become the only new party to make it into parliament.
Ahead of the vote, the field had been purged of almost all genuine opposition and independent candidates. No observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe -- the most respected international election monitor -- were present.
As Russians reflect on what has been a messy and opaque election season, here’s what you need to know about the vote.
United Russia, the party backed by Putin, was in trouble before this vote.
Its approval rating had been steadily slipping for months, due in no small part to relentless corruption exposés by the team of jailed opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, who coined the term “the party of crooks and thieves” nearly a decade ago.
But in the aftermath of a massive crackdown on Navalny’s movement and on the broader opposition in Russia, and the exclusion of its strongest rivals from the vote, United Russia was on track to retain its majority in the State Duma, according to early results.
That also makes a winner of Putin himself, who had relied on a stacked parliament to push through controversial initiatives like last year’s dubious referendum on resetting his presidential term limits and paving the way for him to potentially rule until 2036.
But pushing through constitutional amendments requires a supermajority -- which United Russia had held.
Preliminary results show the party was on track to get that, but as of the early hours after polls closed, it wasn’t certain.
It has been an uphill struggle for the opposition, which has faced repeated waves of mass arrests and criminal cases against its members throughout the country.
Navalny has languished in prison since February. All of his top aides have fled the country since his network was declared an “extremist organization” and outlawed by the government in June.
Analysts say it was the looming election season that prompted the authorities to accelerate a war of attrition against critics and opposition activists.
In previous elections, opposition groups had fielded candidates throughout the country, though most faced serious barriers that made campaigning difficult.
This year, however, all but a token few were permitted to even run.
Ahead of the elections, a message to supporters on Navalny’s blog read: “If United Russia wins, our country can expect another five years of poverty, five years of repression, five lost years.”
But with United Russia’s victory all but confirmed, the lack of any major protests during three days of voting does not bode well for an opposition movement that has often relied on street activism to pressure the state.
It seems unlikely that Navalny’s network will be able to rally street protests to challenge the Duma vote on the scale that they rallied after Navalny was arrested in January -- not to mention the enormous demonstrations that Navalny rallied in 2011-2012 after disputed Duma elections.
So as the party of power prepares to celebrate its victory, the opposition seems to be out of ideas to crash the party. At least for the moment.
The opposition’s biggest hope to influence the results was through Navalny’s strategy of Smart Voting, which guided supporters to back candidates most likely to defeat United Russia’s candidates in various districts.
In past years, Smart Voting was promoted via e-mail, social media, and word of mouth. This year, Navalny’s team invested in a high-tech downloadable app.
But on September 17, Apple and Google scrubbed the app from their online stores, apparently under Kremlin pressure, and Google-owned YouTube removed an important video by Navalny’s team promoting the strategy. Google also restricted access to a Google Doc that included the Smart Voting endorsement. The popular messaging app Telegram made similar restrictions on Navalny endorsements.
Writing on Twitter, Navalny aide Ivan Zhdanov called the U.S. tech companies’ moves “a shameful act of political censorship.”
Many analysts and opposition activists described the restrictions as a watershed moment for an already embattled opposition movement that has long relied on YouTube and other foreign platforms as a way of spotlighting injustice and spreading their message outside the reach of the government’s heavy hand.
Both Apple and Google have faced an onslaught of criticism since their decisions became public, but they also revealed a lot about their willingness to toe the Kremlin line when their employees in Russia face intimidation and even threats of criminal prosecution by the authorities.
A decade ago, Moscow was rocked by massive anti-government protests in the aftermath of Duma elections that were also marred by widespread allegations of fraud. The protests helped catapult Navalny to national prominence.
In neighboring Belarus in August 2020, even starker evidence of mass vote-rigging almost toppled that country’s dictator, Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
The Kremlin did not want a repeat of either of those scenarios this year.
Ahead of the elections, many analysts predicted that the authorities would do their utmost to minimize clear violations on election days. Barring opposition candidates from competing and blocking Navalny’s Smart Voting app, according to this logic, made falsifications unnecessary.
That hasn’t quite worked out.
During three days of voting, social media has been full of footage of apparent blatant ballot-stuffing, with clips surfacing from various parts of Russia.
If these were supposed to be elections of a new type, unscathed by evidence of fraud, it wasn’t to be.
The question is whether the falsifications made the difference in tilting victory toward United Russia, or whether they were merely just localized symptoms of wider, persistent, unaddressed problems with Russian election conduct.
Given that the country’s leading election-monitoring NGO, Golos, has been kneecapped, branded a “foreign agent” by Russian authorities, we may never know the answer to that.
A Trial Run For 2024?
While securing a United Russia majority, or supermajority in the Duma, was the immediate priority, the really big test for the Kremlin will come three years from now, in 2024.
That’s when Putin’s current term expires.
As of right now, it’s an open question whether he will seek another term, something that the United Russia-dominated Duma cleared the way for last year.
By 2024, Putin will be 71, and will have held power as president or prime minister for the previous 24 years.
His support among the public has been relatively stable throughout the past seven years, according to most opinion polls, but if it markedly slips over the next two, the Kremlin’s so-called political technologists may have to work overtime to ensure his victory despite the odds.
Another plausible scenario is Putin taking on a “supra-presidency” role, allowing him to leave the presidency but retain ultimate authority. But that would potentially require more constitutional changes from a pliant Duma. And identifying a would-be successor could also be messy.
The electronic voting system trialed nationwide during this election has been widely criticized as facilitating fraud, but it looks like it’s here to stay.
That means it may be a big part of the electoral arsenal in 2024, too.