In many ways, the Vladimir Putin era began with a State Duma election.
Back in late 1999, when Putin was just a couple months into his job as Russia's prime minister, he was asked whom he favored in the upcoming State Duma elections.
Putin said that "as a citizen," he would support a newly formed party called Unity, which at the time was running behind the Communists and the opposition Fatherland-All Russia.
Putin had been cultivating a tough-guy image by prosecuting a war against Chechen insurgents, whom he vowed to "wipe out in the outhouse." And as the ailing Boris Yeltsin's designated successor, he was trying to raise hopes that he could end the chaos and deprivation of the 1990s.
The elections would be the first test of his political clout with the public.
And when Unity finished in second place, less than a percentage point behind the Communists and well ahead of Fatherland-All Russia, it looked like the new prime minister had the magic touch.
Less than two weeks after that election, Putin would become Russia's acting president following Yeltsin's New Year's Eve resignation. And Unity -- which was later christened as United Russia -- became Putin's party.
Every State Duma election since has been a watershed moment in Putin's long rule.
Theater And Rituals
Sure, they're fixed and they're falsified. Of course they're a far cry from free and fair. And yeah, their results are always painfully predictable.
But even though the fix is in, and even though the legislature they elect is largely a rubber stamp for Kremlin policies, Duma elections are actually quite important.
Just as Russian presidential elections under Putin have been turned into coronations, Duma elections have become the regime's principal legitimization ritual.
They're an important barometer of the Kremlin's mastery -- or lack thereof -- of the political process. And they also tend to be watershed moments, signaling coming changes in the political environment.
Which is why it makes sense to pay close attention to Russia's September 18 State Duma elections, less for the final result than for the political theater -- and how skillfully the Kremlin is able to choreograph it.
"The regime in Russia aspires to be viewed as broadly legitimate while keeping political pluralism highly constrained," Max Bader of Leiden University wrote in New Eastern Europe.
When the Putin regime has been able to embed the elections in a compelling narrative, use its media dominance to shape the information environment, and mobilize the population with the administrative resources at its disposal, the legitimization ritual has been successful.
In 2003, Putin used the first Duma elections of his presidency to decisively consolidate his power, marginalize liberal pro-Western parties, and signal a turn to a more authoritarian form of rule.
United Russia won 223 of the Duma's 450 seats and most of the others were taken by the housebroken "opposition parties" like the Communists and Vladimir Zhirinovsky's nationalist LDPR.
The elections came just months after the October 2003 arrest of oil oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who had been financing liberal opposition parties. This allowed Putin to eliminate meaningful opposition while at the same time create the illusion that he was battling the Yeltsin-era oligarchs.
The elections also came less than a year before Putin eliminated popular elections for Russia's governors.
"By presenting the picture of a country that is united, happy, and supportive of the government, it helps marginalize and silence those who are disaffected," Mark Galeotti, a senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations in Prague and a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in BNEIntellinews.
But when the Kremlin has had to resort to the cruder and more obvious methods of falsification like ballot stuffing and carousel voting on election day, the ritual has been a failure.
Good And Bad Shows
Russia's last two Duma elections -- in 2007 and 2011 -- provide textbook examples of these opposite outcomes.
The 2007 elections took place in a time of political uncertainty.
Putin's second term was ending. Part of the elite clearly wanted him to ignore the constitution and stay for a third consecutive term. And part of the elite wanted him to stick to the constitution and name a successor.
As we all know, Putin endorsed Dmitry Medvedev as his successor. But at the same time Putin turned the Duma elections -- which came just months before the presidential election -- into a referendum on...Vladimir Putin.
Putin led the United Russia party list and the vote was preceded by a massive propaganda campaign celebrating him as Russia's "national leader." Mass rallies were held in cities across Russia and state-controlled media touted "Putin's Plan," suggesting he had a long-term strategy for ruling Russia even after leaving office.
And it worked. United Russia won a super-majority without having to resort to the most obvious forms of crude falsification, Putin became prime minister and remained the country's de facto ruler.
The political theater and the legitimization ritual was a success.
The contrast with 2011 couldn't have been sharper.
Those Duma elections took place in the political uncertainty accompanying the end of Medvedev's term as president. And when Putin and Medvedev announced that they would be swapping jobs -- the infamous "castling" -- a meaningful part of both the elite and the public was unhappy with the move.
With the elite divided, the Kremlin was unable to construct a compelling narrative around the elections. And the opposition, led by anticorruption blogger Aleksei Navalny, successfully branded United Russia as "the party of swindlers and thieves."
To even secure the barest majority for the ruling party, the regime was forced to resort to open and blatant falsification -- videos of which were widely circulated online.
The result was the largest anti-Kremlin demonstrations since the breakup of the Soviet Union and the biggest threat to the regime during Putin's rule.
Like past State Duma elections of the Putin era, the September 18 vote also promises to be a watershed.
It's taking place as the Kremlin leader is changing his governing model, purging former cronies from his inner circle and bringing in younger officials who owe their careers to Putin alone.
It is also taking place with the economy reeling from Western sanctions and low oil prices and social protests on the rise.
The result, of course is predictable. United Russia and the usual fake opposition parties -- the Communists, the Liberal Democrats, and A Just Russia -- will surely win seats. There might even be a few surprises to create the illusion of greater pluralism.
But the result will be less important than the success of the ritual and the political theater.