Earlier this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he would be self-isolating after several members of his entourage tested positive for Covid. Mr Putin’s isolation came in the days leading up to this weekend’s legislative elections, which will see a vote of 450 seats in the state Duma.
The focus in this election will be on the party called United Russia, the most dominant political party in Russia, which currently holds two-thirds of the parliamentary seats in the House of Representatives. While Russian President Vladimir Putin is not ready for re-election this weekend, and is not a member of the United Russia party, there is little doubt about the close and intense ties between Mr. Putin and the party.
They have supported each other during the many years Putin led Russia, now being either president or prime minister since 1999. He is the second longest-serving European president, having been given the position by his ally. President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko.
Thus, any analysis of how united Russia operates this weekend will inevitably reflect on Putin’s presidency.
There will be, on paper at least, a range of options for voters. A total of 14 parties will be on the ballot when voting takes place over three days from 17-19 September.
But the participants do this with the express consent of the Kremlin. In recent months, a variety of allegations have been made about dirty tricks, including the accusation that doppelgangers have been placed on ballot papers to confuse voters.
President Putin’s old opponents largely find themselves either imprisoned, in exile or dead. Along with opposition parties, media organizations and election monitoring bodies have been at the center of a crackdown in recent months.
Last month, Russia’s Ministry of Justice declared Golos, an independent voting monitoring group, a “foreign agent.” This term is used to describe organizations that the Russian government says are funded by foreign bodies and that engage in political activity within Russia.
The term carries negative connotations from the Soviet era and implies significant additional security scrutiny for those who obtained the label, making their work more difficult.
Golos has a history with the current Russian government, having published evidence of election fraud in both 2011 and 2012.
Opposition figures, such as Alexei Navalny, were also disqualified from running for elections. His movement was labeled “extremist” in a law signed in June, which bars members of such groups from running for office. Mr. Navalny is currently in a Russian prison who was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for his alleged parole violations.
From prison, he’s still trying to influence the ballot, as he and his allies advocate a tactical voting campaign aimed at damaging the United Russia party.
The “Smart Vote” campaign is designed to unite the voices of those who oppose Mr. Putin’s party by urging voters to cast their ballots for the constituency candidate who has the best chance of defeating United Russia. The case of voting not so much for one party, but voting against one, in the hope that this would at least weaken the overwhelming majority that United Russia currently occupies.
The Russian government’s response to the “smart voting scheme” was to block access to its website and app.
The Kremlin has defended itself by saying that it is simply reacting to illegal activity rather than having any agenda against those involved. But, as the label “foreign agent” spreads to more and more groups opposing Putin, accusations of meddling are mounting more and more.
Roman Dobrokhotov, editor-in-chief of the new agency The Insider, accused the Russian state of destroying the media.
Mr. Dobrokhotov was also considered a “foreign agent” and a criminal investigation was opened against him amid accusations of defamation. His post involved the investigation into Navalny’s poisoning last year, identifying a number of state security officials who said they were involved in the poisoning.
While Mr. Navalny blamed the Kremlin for the poisoning which he said was an attempt on his life, Mr. Putin has vehemently denied any involvement.
The economy is in decline
A strong economy was one of the factors that made Vladimir Putin maintain high levels of popularity in Russia in his early years in power. But the economic stagnation, rising inflation and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic have seen living standards decline in Russia in recent years.
Dr. Alexander Titov of Queen’s University Belfast says: “Russia needs economic reforms to raise incomes and move towards a sustainable growth model…but it is unclear whether the current leadership can implement substantive reforms without jeopardizing the public order built on patronage. Ignoring the rules official.”
While President Putin remains popular in Russia, there was a significant drop in support for United Russia ahead of this weekend’s poll.
The Levada Institute, an independent Russian polling firm (also recently designated a “foreign agent”), reported earlier this year that support for the party had fallen to an eight-year low.
While no one believes that the party will lose its majority, if it drops significantly from what it has now, it will likely have an impact on its power and ability to implement the kind of constitutional changes it has had in the past, for example in 2020 when the ballot saw an extension of the term of office Potential President Putin in power.
The Moscow Times is classifying the election as a “state-run cure,” which amounts to a “vote of confidence for Putin,” while sending the message that if the majority stays in the president’s favour, then he “would be wise to join in, rather than dream of change.”
In a political landscape so managed, the slightest erosion of support or power takes on new significance.
No drastic changes are expected in Russia this weekend, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be significant.
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