According to initial estimates, the party of power – United Russia – performed even better than expected in parliamentary elections. But how much support does the party really have in Russia?


Polling stations during the Russian election day, as seen from surveillance cameras on Sept. 18. Photo: TASS

On Sept. 18, Russians went to the polls to elect candidates for the State Duma, the lower chamber of the nation’s parliament. However, as many experts predicted, this year’s elections didn’t change the current status quo. The new parliament resembles the previous one, bringing together the same four parties – United Russia, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), the Communist Party and A Just Russia – to govern the country.

According to preliminary results, the ruling United Russia party is winning with 51 percent of the votes, followed by the Liberal Democratic Party (15.1 percent), the Communist Party (14.58 percent), and A Just Russia party (6.4 percent). However, due to the mixed system of voting, which includes single-mandate constituencies as well as party lists, some candidates from other parties will receive seats in the new Duma.

Experts point out that many young Russians came to the polling stations this year, which is a good sign, said Yelena Shestopal, a political scientist and a professor at Lomonosov Moscow State University. However, the major flaw of the elections is the extremely low voter turnout, with less than 50 percent of eligible voters having voted at the polling station. In Moscow, the turnout was even lower: about 35 percent.

It means that Russian society has become even more apathetic, according to Russian politician and democratic activist Leonid Gozman.

“People just understand that the State Duma is not the decision-maker at all,” he told Russia Direct. “The parliament turned into a sort of circus with clowns 16-17 years ago. No matter who will be elected in the parliament, this buffoonish circus will remain. So, it makes no sense. There is also an opinion that the results will be fabricated. It doesn’t mean that I justify such apathy. I just explain it. There is no reason to vote for such people.”

Also read: "What to expect from the 2016 Russian parliamentary elections"

Gozman argues that if the turnout had been bigger, United Russia would have garnered less votes and opposition parties such as Yabloko and the People’s Freedom Party (PARNAS) would have performed a bit better.

Meanwhile, Shestopal assumes that the turnout was very low because the elections were moved up from December to September. That means that the peak of the political campaign started in summer, when many Russians were on vacation.

“The elections were supposed to take place in December, but they were conducted in September and there was not enough time for the normal political campaign to involve people in the electoral process,” she said. “In fact, people started paying attention to the campaign only during the last few weeks, when they came back from vacation.”

She agrees with Gozman that the low turnout benefits only the parliamentary parties and could affect the way people view the opposition and other political stakeholders.

Most importantly, people failed to unite and to come together. And this is a very dangerous trend in such a difficult period for the country, when it is faced with economic and international challenges, Shestopal warns.

Instead of the mobilization of the population, we see demobilization,” she told Russia Direct. “On the other hand, it [the shift of the election day from December to September] was carefully planned to bring about such a low turnout. It might be just a routine [political] calculation.”

One of the factors that also affected the electoral turnout is the bureaucratic difficulty to vote in Moscow for non-Moscow residents who lack the proper registration. Officially, about 7 million voters are registered in the capital of Russia; however, in fact, there are about 14-15 million people in Moscow. It means the votes of those residents, who don’t have the registration in Moscow, but live and work there on permanent basis, are also not taken into account.

However, some experts believe that this problem is not the key reason of the low turnout.

“The low turnout in the Russian capital doesn’t depend on those voters, who are not registered in Moscow,” Pavel Salin, the director of the Center for Political Studies at the Financial University under the Russian government, told Russia Direct. “The city brings together primarily the protest vote. People just don’t see a political force, which is worthwhile to vote for. Today all parliamentary parties look the same for many voters. So, they don’t see differences between them. That’s why they just didn’t go to the polling stations.”

Future political reforms?

Most importantly, there was not a single non-parliamentary party that managed to overcome the 3-percent threshold, which means that they won’t receive funding from the government. However, government support is what allows these parties to keep afloat and work with voters between electoral cycles, said Salin. Without government money, these parties just won’t survive until the next electoral cycle.

In such a situation, the Russian political system should be reformed, argues Gozman. According to him, the liberal and opposition parties should learn lessons from their failure and adjust to the new reality instead of complaining about the apathy of voters and the lack of broadcasting time on TV.    

“Believing that TV brainwashed people means that they [the parties] don’t respect them,” Gozman said. “Today the task for the leaders of the liberal parties is to understand what they are doing wrong, why they failed to bring together people and why they are losing ground every year. Why did they fail to come up with a clear and understandable message that would overshadow primitive propaganda?”    

Gozman argues that those leaders, who failed at the elections, should resign and give an opportunity to other, more competent and ambitious politicians, but there is no rotation among the opposition leaders, with the same politicians participating in the parliamentary elections. “The current opposition leaders are not replaced and this is wrong,” Gozman concluded.

Read the interview with Leonid Gozman: "What do the Kremlin and the Russian opposition have in common?"

He is very skeptical about the future of the Russian parliament. According to him, it doesn’t play a significant role in the decision-making process. It just fulfills the orders of Russia’s key decision-maker: the Kremlin. However, liberals, if elected, would diversify the parliament and change the situation to a certain extent.

In contrast, Salin is confident that the elections will bring some changes, which could come primarily from more independent single-mandate politicians, who received seats in the parliament.

“Today, it is important to understand how single-mandate politicians will behave in the State Duma, including those candidates from United Russia,” he said. “And we will see the first results after the presidential elections in 2018, when the authorities start implementing their new economic policy and fulfill social commitments. In such a situation, single-mandate deputies will have to respond.”