Elections Aren’t Getting Any Easier For the Kremlin

“We are Team Putin. We are United Russia,” read the backdrop to a gathering organized by the pro-Kremlin party earlier this month. September’s parliamentary elections are edging closer, and the bloc has reached for its trump card.

Vladimir Putin does not officially lead United Russia and usually takes pains to stand apart from the parliamentary fray. But these are not usual times. The regime, tired and under strain, has an eye on the presidential election in 2024. It urgently needs the ruling party to narrow the yawning gap between its unimpressive popularity ratings and the votes required to secure a supermajority in the Duma, crucial for any constitutional tinkering in advance of that vote. United Russia’s support stands at around 27%, pedestrian especially for a party with vast administrative resources at its disposal, while trust in Putin tops 60%.

Crucially, the party has to manage that differential in the face of growing political apathy and distrust in institutions, plus the reality of squeezed household incomes, higher prices and a pandemic that has been killing near-record numbers of Russians daily. Trickiest of all, it needs to succeed without overdoing the perception of electoral meddling, for fear of restarting protests that, even after a crackdown over the past few months, could mean a return to the unrest seen after 2011’s parliamentary vote. Those polls, independent observers said, were marked by manipulation and ballot-stuffing.

Elections matter to authoritarian states, contrary to common perception, and Putin has long relied on ballots to bolster his image as a leader of unparalleled popularity and invincibility. A victorious United Russia is part of that perception. It’s rarely mattered more, as the 68-year-old president nears the end of his fourth term in office with no successor in sight. But to get a result close to 2016, when United Russia secured some three-quarters of the Duma’s 450 seats, will require plenty to go the Kremlin’s way.

It’s already pulling out all the stops, starting with a campaign to crush organized networks of anti-Putin activists. Alexey Navalny, who dubbed United Russia “the party of crooks and thieves” and has been the Kremlin’s loudest critic, was jailed earlier this year, his movement branded extremist and dismantled. Recent changes to election rules make it harder for candidates to put themselves forward. Such is the level of paranoia that even a former presidential contender who was supposed to be third on the Communist party ticket has been barred from standing, ostensibly because of assets held abroad (which he says have been sold) — an unusually harsh blow to a party that has long helped keep up the pretense of competitive elections without causing the Kremlin real headaches. Independent media have fared little better. 

Then there are efforts that will make it harder to spot any tampering. Pandemic measures mean voting has been spread over three days, as happened last year. Access to live streams from polling stations, a feature since 2012, will be restricted. For the first time in nearly three decades, there will be no observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Meanwhile, Golos, a local independent vote-monitoring movement, has been labelled a foreign agent. It had detailed cases of fraud in 2011.

There are also plenty of populist, short-term measures. During an event on Sunday, Putin promised cash handouts to pensioners and servicemen, both core support bases. He spoke against vaccine mandates, a sop to reluctant, pandemic-weary Russians: Covid-linked rules in Moscow have already been eased. Not that there is any end in sight to high infection numbers, given only about 23.5% of Russians are fully vaccinated — an embarrassing level for a country that was the first to approve a shot, trumpeted that as a national victory and has made it widely available at home. It is an unequivocal sign of distrust. No surprise, then, that the issue has largely been kept off the campaign agenda.

There are still irksome unknowns, of course. Turnout is one, after the sharp drop seen in 2016 to 48%. Yet as Ben Noble, lecturer in Russian politics at University College London, points out, while an even lower figure is hardly good news for a regime seeking a legitimacy boost, turnout is less of a Kremlin concern when it comes to parliamentary polls, when Putin is not the focus of the campaign. Instead, the emphasis here is on the final outcome, and so on getting loyal citizens out to cast their ballots.

Another open question is the impact of Navalny’s call for Russians to vote tactically against official candidates, even without his organization directing the effort. It will certainly be far tougher to score significant wins, especially outside Moscow and St Petersburg. If there is any hint of success, moreover, the government will  simply raise the volume on warnings of foreign meddling. It’s a tried-and-tested means of smearing the opposition — and yet another sign of a regime that’s run out of imagination.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities and environmental, social and governance issues. Previously, she was an associate editor for Reuters Breakingviews, and editor and correspondent for Reuters in Singapore, India, the U.K., Italy and Russia.

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