In September 2016, Russians will go to the polls to cast their votes for deputies of the State Duma. Here’s your guide for what to expect just six months from now.

If a violation is reported during Russia's parliamentary elections, a special protocol is drawn and then submitted to the Election Commission. Photo: Sputnik

When Russia votes for the State Duma in September 2016, the popular consensus is that the current economic crisis might cost the ruling party its top position in the lower house of the Russian Parliament. With that in mind, we’ve put together a useful explainer on how the Russian electoral system works, and what to keep an eye on over the next six months.

What is the State Duma?

The State Duma is the lower chamber of the Russian Parliament. The current State Duma bears only a passing resemblance to the original State Duma, which appeared in 1906 in imperial Russia. During the final years of the Romanov dynasty (1906-1917), four Dumas worked for a total of 12 years.

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After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the State Duma was reconfigured for the new political reality of Russia. From 1993-2007, members of the State Duma were elected to four-year terms. In 2008, the term was extended to 5 years. Any Russian citizen 21 years of age or older can become a deputy. The elections are decided by a universal secret ballot. The voting age in Russia is 18.

What is the procedure for the State Duma elections?

The electoral system has changed a number of times since 1993. Initially, between 1993 and 2003, Russia used the mixed system of majority and proportional vote, but in 2003, the majority system was abolished, and the threshold for being elected into the State Duma was set at 7 percent of votes (previously, 5 percent).

Since that time, Russia has reverted back to the earlier procedure. Half of the deputies (225) are elected through the party lists (proportional system), and the other half represents single-seat constituencies (majority system). Parties need to receive at least 5 percent of all votes, and single-seat candidates have to secure the majority of votes.

What are the implications of being on a party list vs. being an independent candidate representing a single-seat constituency?

A candidate on a party list mostly relies on the party image and the general election campaign. Independent candidates have their own reputation and personality to speak for them. In addition, their program has to target voters who are living in a specific constituency. If an independent candidate is well known locally or nationally, he or she will have a much easier time getting votes.

For example, famous hockey player Vladislav Tretiak became a member of the State Duma by winning the election in a single-seat constituency in the Volga Region. Prior to the election campaign and after the election, he did not do much to promote the interests of the region and its people, but the name recognition played its part, and Tretiak won the election.

How many Russian parties are there?

At the moment, Russia has 77 registered political parties. However, only four are represented in the State Duma: United Russia (the social conservative party in power, characterized by its centrist views), the Communists, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) and A Just Russia (a left-of-center party).

Since Russia' shift to capitalism, the right-wing parties are traditionally seen as forces that support traditional economic programs, market values, private ownership, etc.

Left-wing parties include radicals and reformers who favor communism and socialism. There is also the far left (Red Brigades and other revolutionary forces) and the far right (parties that profess extreme nationalism).

In Russia, members of the far right and far left typically unite under the "Russia above all" slogan and are frequently referred to as the Red Browns. They include the currently banned National Bolshevik Party (NBP) and the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), which is represented in the Russian Parliament.

The LDPR, while liberal and democratic by designation, actually promotes Russian nationalism and neo-imperialism.

Russian politics uses the concept of the "ruling party,” which is usually taken to mean a party created specifically to provide parliamentary support to the current President and Prime Minister.

How fair are Russia’s elections?

The integrity of the election process is monitored. Usually, each party whose candidates are in the running sends its observers to the polling stations. If a violation is reported, a special protocol is drawn and then submitted to the Election Commission. The protocol can be used by a party to contest election results in court.

A lot of violations were reported to have taken place during the 2011 parliamentary elections, which provoked large-scale protests in Russia and the country's opposition movement got a second wind. However, after 2012, during Vladimir Putin's third presidential term, the protest movement came to an end. 

Video by Vladimir Stakheev and Pavel Koshkin

What role does the Russian opposition play in the elections?

The opposition is mostly used to refer to right-wing groups, such as the People's Freedom Party "For Russia without Lawlessness and Corruption" and Yabloko. Their main supporters come from large cities (Moscow and St. Petersburg).

Still, the People's Freedom Party (PFP) manages to promote its agenda in other regions, for example, in Kostroma. One of the main problems of working at the regional level is TV access. Local channels tend to provide negative coverage or only allow the opposition to have unpopular TV spots. Buying advertising time is quite expensive, and a smaller party might not be able to afford that.

In all previous elections, opposition parties in Russia enjoyed relatively small support of about 5 percent. With the threshold raised to 7 percent, they were out of the running. That is when the opposition started talking about joining efforts, but nothing came of it. A democratic coalition was created only in the spring of 2015. It includes the PFP, Progress Party, Libertarian Party,  December 5 Party and Democratic Choice.

What are spoiler parties in Russian politics?

Spoiler parties are created to prevent the opposition from gaining parliamentary seats. For example, a party that supports entrepreneurs represents the opposition. Then another small party develops a similar political program. Thus, votes are split, and neither party attains the specific threshold required to gain a seat in the Parliament.