Putin strengthens his grip on power in Russia

The elections for the State Duma, or the lower house of the Federal Assembly of Russia, were held last Sunday. The ruling party United Russia strengthened its position in an atmosphere of general indifference.

According to Markku Kangaspuro, research director at the Aleksanteri Institute, voters knew in advance that the ruling party would win the elections. The people did not see a credible alternative, despite 14 other parties participating.

This was apparent in the lack of enthusiasm in both backers of United Russia and its opposition.

 “With more than 50% of the votes counted, it looks like United Russia will receive 100 more seats, thanks to the reintroduction of single-member constituencies. This means that it would have legislative majority in the 450-member State Duma, meaning that in practice, the government would not need the approval of any other parties on any issues.”

Correspondingly, the other three parties in the Duma lost seats.

“A Just Russia lost nearly half of its backing, while Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s populist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and the Communist Party seem to have maintained their level of support,” says Kangaspuro.

Elections shadowed by a faltering economy

The devaluation of the rouble and the nosediving economy have increased the prices of all basic goods and services in Russia, while salaries and pensions have fallen far behind.

“The weak economy is combined with general dissatisfaction with the corrupt ruling class, which has been expressed in several opinion surveys,” Kangaspuro explains.

All opportunities for major protests were stifled before the elections, however, and fines were set for any unofficial demonstrations.

“In terms of the election being fair, in the sense of all parties being theoretically on equal footing in the competition for votes, this was not a particularly democratic election.”

Election set-up favoured United Russia

“The whole election and candidate set-up was built to avoid a repeat of the events of 2011. Five years ago, the people’s frustration with the political system was turned into an effective protest against the ruling party with the slogan inspired by opposition leader Alexei Navalny, ‘vote for any party except United Russia’,” states Jussi Lassila, postdoctoral researcher at the Aleksanteri Institute.

Now single-member constituencies have been established alongside the party list election. This means that half, or 225 representatives, will come from single-member constituencies, and the other 225 from party lists.

“Effectively, even if an extensive voter protest were to result in fewer votes being cast for United Russia, the single-member constituencies have been set up so that a candidate from the ruling party will be elected,” Lassila summarises.

"The current situation is so clearly constructed to ensure a win for United Russia that if another party were to win, it would be a real surprise."

“Divide and conquer”

More parties took part in the State Duma elections than did last time. Lassila, who studies Russian political movements, believes that a larger number of parties were allowed to participate in order to placate the demands for simplifying the registration of new parties.

According to Lassila, the intention was to eliminate any organised protests by approving either the most loyal supporters of the status quo, or its most toothless opponents, to represent the opposition.

“The goal was to scatter opposition votes in the election. With a large number of weak political parties, it is more difficult to connect the mobilisation and political expression of Russian citizens to a specific political movement. The current situation supports the existing culture of authoritative leadership, based heavily on a strong president ruling over the parties.”

 “Vladimir Putin has consistently been significantly more popular than his party, United Russia. In Russia, the majority of people blames members of the Duma, the parties and the government for problems, but rarely Putin. In this sense, the western style of discussing and criticising Russian problems with a focus on Putin is more telling than the Russian mood,” Markku Kangaspuro points out.

The election results are unlikely to herald significant reform in Russian policy.

“It looks like Putin and the ruling party will receive the mandate they sought even though the honesty of the election will surely be debated for some time. Nevertheless, it would be a surprise if this and the planned demonstrations result in any major changes,” Kangaspuro muses.