Russians can make a difference in Sunday's elections: by staying at home

The Duma is a rubber stamp parliament and the elections of September 18 are rigged. Still there is one thing the Kremlin is worried about: what if people protest by not voting? That would be a clear signal to Putin that he has to change course before the real stand-off: the presidential elections of 2018. Turn-out this time is key.

by Mark Galeotti

On September 18 Russia goes to the polls to elect the 450 deputies of the State Duma, the lower house of legislature. In the past, Duma elections have been characterised by vote rigging on an industrial scale, and although we are likely to see less of that this time, the system has been organized to make sure the Kremlin continues to dominate parliament. But that doesn’t mean that ordinary Russians can’t do anything to register their dissatisfaction with current policy or even to deliver a blow against Vladimir Putin. Their most powerful weapon is simply not to turn up.

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In theory, the Duma plays a powerful role, being responsible for everything from ratifying the president’s choice of prime minister to passing laws. In practice, it is dominated by the Kremlin’s loyal United Russia bloc and other parties created to give the appearance of pluralism while in practice backing the government at every important juncture, from the leftist Just Russia through to the ultranationalist Liberal Democrats. The Duma is a rubber stamp for the Kremlin. When voting on the annexation of Crimea, for example, only one deputy, Ilya Ponomarev, was willing to challenge this flouting of international law, and he ended up having to flee Russia afterwards.

It also does its job badly, passing poorly-drafted and even contradictory laws with so little debate and scrutiny that this most recent parliament has been dubbed the 'mad printer' because it churns them out at such a rate. The most recent serious projections, though, show United Russia’s support down to 31% – below the 35% threshold it would need to secure a majority in the chamber, given the electoral rules. Does this matter, given that other pseudoparties exist to make up the shortfall? Russian elections do matter, just in different ways. They matter less for the outcome in the chamber – which the government can comprehensively rig – so much as a spectacle to distract people and a ritual to 'prove' that Russians are behind their government. So the elections, much like the often-raucous behaviour in the Duma, are soap opera, not substance. It’s all a show to keep Russians and the rest of the world distracted. In this case, it almost works best because of, not despite the rigging. While watching the show, Russians are less likely to be aware of how the Kremlin controls every aspect of the process and uses that control to punish its enemies, reward its friends, and funnel scarce resources away from public services and into private hands.

Political theatre

The elections are also a piece of legitimating political theatre. 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. It’s all about the turnout To this end, while some voters will no doubt be tempted to vote for real opposition parties such as PARNAS or Yabloko, to do so is to legitimise a system. Not only are the opposition parties locked out of any chance of success, they have manifestly failed to set personal and factional rivalries aside and find common cause. Casting a protest vote may be tempting, but to do so actually works to the Kremlin’s advantage. The reason is that for the elections to do their work in legitimising the status quo, the regime needs to get (or be able to claim) a solid proportion of the electorate casting their ballots. In 2011 the turnout was a reasonable 60.1%, slightly down on 2007’s 63.7% (by contrast, the US 2014 midterms saw a low 36.4% of voters casting their ballots). However, times are hard and unpopular austerity measures are almost certainly coming in the autumn. This time the Kremlin needs to be able to claim it has a strong popular mandate. But this may be the real challenge for the Kremlin: getting Russians to bother voting.

In a poll by the Levada Center – Russia’s most respected pollsters, facing closure as a result of the government’s decision to brand it a 'foreign agent' – respondents were evenly split between those who thought the elections would be a real contest and those who assumed it would only be an imitation election, choreographed by the authorities. As people begin to see their government and their legislators as at best useless, at worst corrupt, then why bother voting? This election-rigging may be directed not at winning specific districts so much as in pumping up the turnout figures, so the government can claim the mandate it needs. Traditionally, all kinds of different tactics have been used to increase the turnout, not least marching conscripts en masse to the polling stations or bussing in workers from factories. However, they were used in 2011, and beyond that it is harder simply to fabricate votes now that polling stations are monitored by webcams.

It is one thing to rig the votes behind the scenes, rather harder to claim many more voters than demonstrably attended. We may expect some mysterious technical problems with the cameras in constituencies with unexpectedly high turnouts. The Realpolitik impacts the Kremlin will use the election outcomes as a gauge on how well local mayors and governors are doing their real job, acting as the government’s local land captains. Did they manage to defuse real grievances, enthuse the electorate and muzzle opposition voices to get the right results? Those whose regions register poor results – or where more manipulation is needed to engineer them – may well find their careers at risk. They are not the only ones, though.

Dress rehearsal

These elections are important in some ways as a dress rehearsal for the one that really matters: the presidential poll in 2018. Putin’s personal popularity ratings remain stratospheric. In the past two years, it has steadily been 80-89%, and even at its low point, at the end of 2013, it did not fall below 60%. Western political leaders can only dream of such ratings: US presidents have averaged 53%, for example. However, he has no rivals, is buoyed up by always-flattering TV presence and, perhaps most importantly, distances himself from any bad news. It is his government, led by prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, that is currently shouldering the blame for economic hardship and the lack of any clear strategy.

Putin himself claims that he is still undecided on whether to run again as president, and that the time to start thinking about this will be after this month’s parliamentary elections. In fact, he is likely committed to standing in 2018, but all the same these elections will give him and the Kremlin elite a sense of the mood of the Russian public. The official figures will look comforting, of course, but the insiders will, to put it bluntly, be looking to gauge how much they had to bribe and browbeat the electorate and massage the data to get the results they needed. If things go badly, if the turnout is low, it may persuade Putin to change course. It might also begin to get some members in the elite talking seriously – albeit secretly – about whether it is time for him to go. Ironically enough, then, these elections really do matter after all. And the way ordinary Russians could have the greatest impact on politics is by skipping the charade and staying at home.

This article was first published by Business New Europe in Prague

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