MOSCOW – After a few weeks of dissatisfied campaigns but months of relentless official moves to shut down significant opposition, Russia began three days of early voting in a parliament on Friday choice it is unlikely to change the country’s political skin.
There is no expectation that United Russia, the party dedicated to President Vladimir Putin, will lose its dominance over the State Duma, the elected parliament. The most important questions to be answered are whether the party will retain its current two-thirds majority which will allow it to amend the constitution; whether anemic turnout will tarnish the party’s prestige; and if the imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s initiative for smart voting turns out to be a viable strategy against it.
“There is very little intrigue in these elections … and in fact, they will not leave any particular traces in political history,” Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told the Associated Press.
However, Putin called on the Russians to vote and said in a video message Thursday that “the election of the (Duma) new composition is without a doubt the most important event in our society and country’s life.”
Polls opened on Friday morning in the Far East regions of Kamchatka and Chukotka, nine hours ahead of Moscow. Voters will be able to vote until Sunday.
With 14 parties fielding candidates for half of the Duma’s 450 seats selected by the party list, the election has a veneer to be truly competitive. But the three parties other than the United Russia that are expected to clear the 5% aid needed to make room rarely challenge the Kremlin.
The Kremlin wants control of the new parliament, which will still be in place by 2024, when Putin’s current term expires and he must decide whether to run for re-election or choose another strategy to stay in power.
The other half of the seats are elected in individual constituencies, where independent candidates or those from small parties such as the liberal Yabloko may have stronger chances. These places are also where the Navalny team’s Smart Voting strategy could make an impact.
The program circumvents the ideology of undermining the United Russia, simply advising voters which candidate other than the ruling party is the strongest in a one-man mandate.
It is essentially a defensive strategy.
“Voting to the detriment of United Russia is not a meaningful goal, not a goal of electing another candidate that you ideologically support,” Kolesnikov said. But it showed strength in its initial use in 2019 when opposition candidates won 20 of 45 seats in Moscow’s city council and a year later when United Russia lost its majorities in councils in three major cities.
However, it is unclear how extensive it will be used this year after authorities blocked access to its website. The service is still available via apps, but Russia has threatened with fines against Apple and Google to remove the apps from their online stores. Last week, the Foreign Ministry called on US Ambassador John Sullivan to protest against election disturbances by American “digital giants”.
Blocking the website was the latest step in neutralizing the Navalny operation, Russia’s most visible and determined opposition organization, which could call for significant protests across the country.
Navalny himself was imprisoned in January when he returned to Russia from Germany where he had recovered from nerve poisoning. was subsequently sentenced to 2½ years in prison. A court later banned Navalny’s foundation from fighting corruption and a network of his regional offices as extremist organizations, a ruling that barred people associated with the groups from seeking public office and sentenced them to long prison terms.
Russian authorities also blocked some 50 websites run by his team or followers for spreading extremist propaganda.
In August, Russia added the independent voice monitoring group Golos to its list of foreign agents, a move that does not block its work but strongly suggests that it should be viewed with suspicion.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, whose election observation mission is widely regarded as authoritative, did not send observers to the vote in parliament, saying Russia was imposing excessive restrictions.
In addition to the elections in the Duma, nine Russian regions will elect governors, 39 regions will elect legislators and voters in 11 cities will elect city councils.
Other ethical issues also hang over the election. According to the state-funded voter VTsIOM, more than one in ten workers say they have been instructed by their bosses to vote. IS Petersburg discovered a candidate from the Yabloko party named Boris Vishnevsky, who is also running for the Duma and a regional legislator, that there are two other men who use the name that opposes him in every race – one of which is a member of United Russia, according to the newspaper Novaya Gazeta.
Although polls suggest that general approval for United Russia is low, the party is expected to move to an overwhelming first place in the new parliament. The Independent Center for Current Policy predicts that it will get 299-306 seats – down from the 343 it currently holds, but within the range of the 303 seats needed to amend the constitution.
The Center’s forecast suggests that most of the seats lost by United Russia would be taken by the Communist Party, the second largest parliamentary faction. But the party largely agrees with the Kremlin line, as do the other two parties, which are likely to get double-digit seats.
“The communists themselves are not very dangerous,” commentator Sergei Parkhomenko told Ekho Moskvy radio. The party is “a tool for imitating an opposition movement”.
Allegations of widespread voting fraud sparked widespread protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg following the 2011 Duma elections. But when the opposition groups are castrated, the prospects for unrest this time seem remote.
“Protests will not take place where we expect them, not at the time we expect them and not from those we expect them to,” Parkhomenko said.
Olga Tregubova in Moscow contributed.