While members of the Russian liberal opposition will participate in this weekend’s Duma elections, there is very little chance that their parties will receive enough votes to gain any seats in the new parliament.

An election poster of Russia's liberal party Yabloko showing a portrait of its leader Grigory Yavlinsky is displayed in central Moscow. It reads "Let's change policy course along with authorities." Photo: AP

On Sept. 18, Russians will go to the polls to elect candidates for the lower chamber of the Russian parliament. Compared to parliamentary elections held five years ago, however, this year’s elections appear to be very much a continuation of the status quo.

Five years ago, disputes over the results of the parliamentary elections resulted in mass protests in Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square and in other cities around the nation. However, the votes were never challenged, the activists were locked up, and the screws were seriously tightened. Moreover, the parliament that resulted from those elections earned the nickname “the mad printer” for the abundance of hastily adopted prohibitive laws.

Despite the economic crisis in the country, many Russians have only minimal interest in the elections and political changes occurring in the country. Almost unanimously, experts agree that the current electoral campaign is the “most sluggish, dull and boring” in the history of Russia. Why do the elections lack intrigue, and who profits from such an apathetic electorate?

Russia’s four parliamentary parties

The conditions under which the electoral campaign of 2016 is taking place are predetermined to a large extent by the way the elections went in 2011. At that time, the elections brought to life the opposition movement as a mass phenomenon in response to mass violations, falsifications and voter “carousels.” (The “carousel” is a scheme where a bribed voter is provided with a ballot paper with a checkmark already put in the right place. The voter enters the booth, hides a clean ballot paper, drops the one that was given to him, and then hands over the clean one to his employers.)

Over the past five years, the State Duma, the lower chamber of the Russian parliament, has issued one prohibitive law after another and the activists have been put in prison, with the opposition leader Alexei Navalny being among the chief targets. The population has been seriously disappointed with the results of the earlier protest activity. At the same time, there has been a surge of patriotic frenzy created by the supporters of the Crimea's incorporation and counter-sanctions.

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For this reason, there are a few changes for the elections of 2016. Firstly, after the two preceding elections, a mixed system of parliament formation is back. That is, 225 members will be elected by the party lists (proportional system), and 225 by single-mandate constituencies (majority system). Secondly, 14 parties have been admitted to the elections, compared to the 7 parties in 2011. However, only a few of them will be able to pass the 5 percent threshold.

In the outgoing Duma, there are four firmly established parliamentary parties: the ruling United Russia, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), the Communist Party, and A Just Russia. This last party was once conceived of as a secondary “party of power” to attract the social-democratic electorate, but the idea failed. In fact, none of the “systemic opposition” parties can compete with the ruling party or cause real debates in the parliament.

The head of the Russian Public Opinion Research Center, Valery Fedorov, shares this opinion.

“According to the results of a weekly survey conducted last week, the United Russia still leads in the ratings of voter preferences," he said. "Thus, one week before the federal Duma elections, the level of declared support for the party rose from 39.9 percent to 41.1 percent.”

The second position is currently occupied by LDPR, with the Communists in third place and A Just Russia in fourth place. Among the non-parliamentary parties, the best results are from the Russian Party of Pensioners, which is getting 2.4 percent of the vote. From the way things stand now, the most the remaining 10 parties can aspire to achieve is state financing, which is granted if the 3 percent barrier is passed.

What ever happened to the Russian opposition?

Russia’s opposition forces are facing steep challenges this year. The nation’s liberal opposition includes two parties, Yabloko and People's Freedom Party (PARNAS). The latter lost most of its supporters when the Democratic Coalition, comprised of a few liberal-democratic parties, broke up after failing to win a large proportion of the votes in regional elections back in April 2015. Despite an attention-getting campaign, the coalition simply could not attract a large enough voter mandate or overcome inter-party squabbling.

The two most prominent persons of the opposition were former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who was the leader of the party, and Navalny, the icon of the liberal opposition and the founder of the Anti-Corruption Foundation and the unregistered Progress Party. Both once emphasized the unity of the Democratic Coalition as a key moment for the opposition. However, the coalition broke up exactly one year after it was formed.

As for Navalny, he cannot appear on the ballot himself as he is currently serving a suspended sentence in the case of Yves Rocher. Thus, some of his supporters will now represent Yabloko, while others will remain within PARNAS. However, Navalny’s headquarters is not even campaigning for the Duma elections as they have declared these elections a farce. Instead, they are going to focus on the presidential electoral campaign in 2018.

All those factors gravely undermined the opposition’s electoral capabilities. With the weakening of PARNAS, Yabloko has come to the forefront as the standard-bearer of the opposition movement. Although the party did not make it into the Duma in the two previous elections, it still overcame the three percent vote barrier, meaning that it qualified for federal financing.

Dmitry Gudkov, arguably the last oppositionist among the current Duma members, planned to represent Yabloko in this election. However, four days before the elections, he suddenly announced on his Facebook page that he had stopped his campaign because he was out of cash, and would be unlikely to participate in the elections. The reasons for that move were unclear, but judging by the comments left on the page, voters were hardly pleased with the decision.

Also, there’s a new political party this year – the Party of Growth. It is not a new party per se, but a reanimated and renamed Right Cause party. It is the so-called party of business and business people. Rather then being a true grassroots movement, the party has been orchestrated by the deputy head of the presidential administration, Vyacheslav Volodin.

The party’s bright billboards have covered the entire capital but, according to surveys, it is expected to receive less than one percent of the vote. Political analysts tend to consider the Party of Growth as just another spoiler party designed to siphon results away from the other opposition parties.

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Pro-Kremlin spoilers have already made attempts to remove the opposition from the elections entirely. Thus, the party Civic Platform filed a claim with the Supreme Court in an attempt to cancel the registration of PARNAS on the grounds that that the leaders of the latter had made statements of an extremist nature.

For instance, the number three on the PARNAS party list, Andrey Zubkov, asserted in his speeches that the “Putinists” were successors to the Bolsheviks as they had seized the power in the country to trample self-government, civil society and parliamentary activity. Such agitation foments social hatred and enmity towards the supporters of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s policy, according to the leaders of Civic Platform.

Having done that, the party suddenly withdrew its claim a week before the election. Its leader Rifat Shaykhutdinov said that their initiative brought more publicity than damage to the competitors, and therefore, the party intended to file another claim after the elections, this time to initiate a criminal case rather than just a removal of the party from the elections.

Obviously, removing PARNAS contradicted the directives of the Kremlin, whose plan was to rob the opposition of any chance to protest. In 2011, the opposition was not admitted to the elections. However, this time around, according to the Kremlin, the opposition will be admitted and will spectacularly fail to win the required 5 percent. To remove the opposition would be to recognize that it represents a potential danger to the party of power and the Kremlin.

A lackluster campaign

The Committee of Civil Initiatives (CCI), under the guidance of former Finance Minister Alexey Kudrin and the independent movement Golos, have published reports on the electoral campaign.

“The campaign is absolutely barren and depoliticized,” Alexander Kynev, a politial expert from Higher School of Economocs (HSE) and from the CCI, told Russia Direct. “All the candidates in single-mandate districts have been running personalized campaigns that are distanced from their party brands while all the party campaigning has been social rather than political.”

In addition, since the election falls in September, the most active phase of the campaign took place during the summer, when many Russians are away at the dacha or on vacation.

The CCI argues that the systemic opposition parties have conducted their campaigns almost exclusively through the mail and free newspapers. It has been impossible to clearly understand that the elections would even take place — so scarce were the campaign ads and public events. State-sponsored propaganda has mainly been present on the TV and Internet. However, things have gone smoothly there, too.

“This electoral campaign has some special features," said Chairman of the Central Election Commission Ella Pamfilova. "Above all, it is the absence up to date of any significant complaints against the actions of federal TV stations, radio channels or periodical publications, in print or on the web. Such a situation has occurred for the first time in the past 15 years.”

The CCI experts believe that the sluggish campaign is part of a strategy aimed at lowering the voter turnout. With a minimal turnout, it is only the electorate mobilized by the party of power, the United Russia, that comes to the voting booths. It is no secret that public sector workers, the state apparatus, the military, and convicts are often coerced into voting in a certain way.

Another part of the same strategy is informal agreements between parties to avoid competition between strong candidates.

As Kynev explained to Russia Direct, the difficult economic situation has also played a part in what is going on. “When people suffer from a crisis, when they lack money for basic needs and are dismissed from work, they cannot afford to care about politics. People are focused on their own problems,” said the expert.

The Golos movement has described the election as “the most sluggish, dull and boring campaign of the decade.” The association has also cited the data and metrics of Medialogiya, which tracks how often the different parties appear in the media. At the beginning of the campaign, the mass media favored the United Russia three times more than the Communist party, four times more than A Just Russia or LDPR, and 50 times more than PARNAS.

In some cases, the parties have embraced the lowest common denominator in their campaign ads. For example, A Just Russia, which had traditionally focused on pensioners, suddenly decided to attract a younger demographic by issuing cartoons in the form of rap debates.

In the capital, tabloid papers running “black PR campaigns” have spread stories about this or that candidate being a pedophile, a homosexual or a corrupt official. It is hard to estimate the efficacy of such methods, as the population had enough of that back in the 1990s.

Another serious complaint by the opposition has always been the absence of real electoral debates. In response to that, a law has been adopted that makes this element of the campaign obligatory. Still, the TV debates that have aired are far from being real discussions with any appeal for the electorate.

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The typical debate scenario is the following: at the beginning, a candidate takes 30 seconds to introduce himself, then the host reads out the topic of the show and each candidate is given four minutes to talk on the theme. Then, each candidate makes a concluding argument that does not exceed 30 seconds.

The format does imply any direct debating between the candidates. As a consequence, they often begin arguing and insulting each other, thus discrediting the very idea of political discussion. According to the ratings, the debates take only the 56th position among all the TV shows.

Last week, the attention of the mass media was riveted to another scandal with Ukraine: Its President Petro Poroshenko declared that he would not allow Russian citizens residing in the country to vote if Russia did not give up the elections in Crimea. However, according to international law, a country cannot ban holding elections on the territory of foreign consulates and embassies. The only problem is to ensure the security of the voters (of whom there are about 80,000 in Ukraine), and protect the consulates from nationalists and radicals, who might resort to provocations in order to disrupt the elections.

As a result, little is likely to change as a result of this year’s elections. It is practically certain that the Duma will start its new cycle with the same fractional composition as before, thus providing a “safety cushion” for the presidential election of 2018.