Over the past few years, the Russian authorities have been gradually rolling out a strategy for managing the upcoming State Duma election. What are the elements of this strategy, and will it help the Kremlin achieve its objectives? Like most modern authoritarian regimes which organise elections, the regime in Russia aspires to be viewed as broadly legitimate while keeping political pluralism highly constrained. These two objectives, evidently, are difficult to reconcile. In order to increase legitimacy, the regime allows more electoral competition, but at the same time it has an incentive to minimise competition, to which end it resorts to heavy-handed tactics including fraud, undermining its legitimacy. Electoral authoritarian regimes such as Russia’s employ idiosyncratic strategies to balance the dual objectives of maintaining legitimacy and limiting competition. They thereby face inevitable trade-offs in crafting their strategies and must regularly adapt them to account for changing circumstances. In the previous Duma election of 2011, the authorities sought to bank on the perceived strength of the ruling United Russia party and on the administrative capacity of the authorities (at different levels) to deliver required election results. This strategy had several flaws. Fewer people than anticipated were ready to vote for United Russia. Analyses of the voting results show that in many areas where no major election fraud was committed, only a quarter to a third of votes went to the ruling party. In order to get a (slight) majority of seats in the Duma, major election fraud was necessary. It was met by significant upheaval, mainly in the form of a wave of popular protests that drew the biggest crowds in Russia since the early 1990s. The fallout from the 2011 election was viewed in Russian political circles as a serious crisis.
Since the 2011 election, the regime has adapted its governing strategy to prevent further large displays of opposition and to secure its dominance in elections. Among other things, fines for violations at demonstrations have increased dramatically; bloggers with more than three thousand subscribers are forced to register and comply with media legislation; the legal definitions of slander and of extremism have been broadened to such an extent that many people potentially could be prosecuted for these offenses; and a recently adopted law expands the powers of the FSB to monitor citizens. In addition to the repressive legislation, the prosecution of opposition leaders such as Aleksey Navalny and ordinary citizens such as the Bolotnaya protestors and the members of Pussy Riot has had a chilling effect on oppositional political activity.
While the political climate has become more repressive, a range of measures suggest that the regime aims to extract more legitimacy from the upcoming election than from the previous one, or at least not face the same type of backlash that the it suffered previously. In the 2011 election, the choice on the ballot was limited to the seven political parties that were registered at the time. Since then, the electoral system for national election has been changed back to a mixed one in which half of the members of parliament are elected from single-member districts. This change will give Russians the opportunity to vote for a candidate from their district next to a political party. Many more political parties than in 2011 can now nominate candidates: there are currently some 74 political parties, of which 25 have at least attempted to nominate candidates. Individuals can also run in one of the single-member districts if they have collected a sufficient number of valid signatures. The selection of candidates for the ruling United Russia party was conducted partially based on the results on nationwide primaries, in which millions of party supporters took part. Altogether, the candidates in the upcoming election are supposed to be closer to the people than the many anonymous candidates who were elected to the 2011-2016 Duma.
Full Article: Russia’s Duma election. What to expect.