New parties set to take Russian stage

Over-shadowed by President Putin’s speech about changes to the constitution, there are moves afoot which give a clue as to how the future Duma might look and how the elections next year might be managed to the advantage of the current President. These include a few new parties intended to shake up the parliament and many more tasked with grabbing a small sector of the electorate, including one led by a key figure behind the World of Tanks computer game.

Russia has long been seen as a managed democracy. There is a lead government party – United Russia (ER) – which currently has a majority in the Duma, and a number of opposition parties which operate within the system, notably the LDPR party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the Communist Party (KPRF) and the liberal-ish Yabloko party led by Grigoriy Yavlinski. Non-systemic opposition parties and movements are typically excluded and figures such as Alexey Navalny have routinely been arrested and had their offices raided by police and tax authorities.

But there have also been a range of other parties and political figures which rise and fall with each election. Back in 2003, the Duma elections were the first under the new President Putin and there was a genuine contest in prospect. Shadow parties designed to take votes from both left (KPRF) and right (LDPR) appeared on the ballot paper and gained a few seats and United Russia won through.

Even with electoral victory all but assured in subsequent contests, the process has still been closely managed by the Kremlin. As Putin said at the end of 2017 when asked about a potential fourth term:

“I haven’t yet decided whether I will run or who I will run against”

Matters now have changed slightly as the future of United Russia is uncertain. It has borne the brunt of public unpopularity on decisions ranging from local refuse collections to pension reform. Such was the level of hatred that the majority of Kremlin loyalists running in last year’s municipal and regional elections did so as independents. So could United Russia be abandoned completely as a Kremlin vehicle or might it be revived? There is no doubt that the state machine is still strong enough that if a decision was taken to press on with ER it would be likely to be victorious.

But the indication is that the Kremlin is considering a different direction, at least in part. Up to 10 new parties are being formed in advance of the 2021 Duma elections, and these include a mixture of serious parties which may be permitted to enter the Duma, and niche parties aiming to grab support of sectoral groups that might otherwise go to the serious opposition.

The project is starting now because of the signature hurdle that needs to be cleared for parties wishing to stand for the Duma elections. In order to register candidates, parties need 200,000 signatures from across the country. That’s a significant barrier and has been used in the past to deny non-systemic opposition candidates. But it can be side-stepped if the party has at least one member elected to a regional council, and there is a set of regional elections this autumn. So the new Kremlin-approved parties are, allegedly, receiving help from regional officials to set up and then to win one or two seats in the autumn contests. Such a plan might result in some almost comical outcomes in local elections as unknown candidates from parties which have done no campaigning and don’t have any infrastructure are nevertheless elected with a significant majority in a single seat.

These niche parties, referred to in Russia as TV Show parties, are much more varied and extensive than in previous elections. One regularly cited is proposed to be called ‘For Direct Democracy’ and would be led by Vyacheslav Makarov, a product manager for the World of Tanks computer game. Another would be led by prominent novelist Zakhar Prilepin. Given (unofficial) state assistance, such ventures would be relatively cheap and would maintain the idea of a healthy contest with lots of names on the ballot, even as non-systemic figures are excluded. 

The TV Show parties will not be in any danger of winning seats in the Duma in 2021, but there are moves to create two or three new parties which will be allowed to, echoing the old shadow parties strategy and broadening the ideological basis of the parliament as a strategy to weaken all parties at a time when President Putin is moving to his new role. But the idea of new parties entering the Duma is not universally popular. Figures in United Russia, including its leader and (until recently Prime Minister) Dmitry Medvedev, have argued for their party to be able to maintain its dominance.