The end for United Russia is not nigh. The party that has dominated Russian politics since 2003 thanks to its connections to Presidents Putin and Medvedev suffered some reversals in last week’s local and regional elections, but it has not been abandoned by the Kremlin as some had predicted.
Overall, United Russia (Единая Россия) saw its vote share fall from 59% in the regional elections held in 2015 to 47.6% this time – a drop of 11.4%. That is a big chunk and falling below the 50% mark is certainly a blow to the pride of the ruling party. Also losing ground was A Just Russia (Справедливая Россия) whose vote share fell from 9.8% to 7.8%. Two parties from the systemic opposition gained ground. The Communist Party (КПРФ) rose from 12.3% to 13.5% and the LDPR (ЛДПР) from 9.9% to 11.6%.
But these tiny gains don’t explain where all of United Russia’s votes went. The answer is a mix of candidates standing as independents and new parties which may or may not be controlled by the Kremlin.
The reason for United Russian’s fall is that over the past few years the party has been the lightning rod for protests against unpopular government policies. From domestic waste disposal to plans for new church buildings, there have been a number of local issues which have seen large-scale protests. These are protests not against the system, nor against oligarchic corruption – issues which might be expected to draw a heavy handed response – and as such they have flourished. One national policy that has cut through has been the repeated attempts to cut public spending on pensions. To protect President Putin as much as possible, it has been United Russia – a party to which Putin has never belonged and which merely endorses his independent candidacy – that has taken the blame.
The concern has been that maybe United Russia has taken on too much of the burden of unpopular decisions. Maybe it is time to cut it adrift and ally the Kremlin to a new political party, or even to a range of them. These results seem to indicate that although significantly bloodied, United Russia will still be a major player in the Duma contests next year.
But for the immediate contests, a large number of candidates for single mandate seats, including those for regional governor, decided to stand as independents. And such a tactic worked. No incumbent governor who stood for re-election was defeated.
In addition, the move towards more proportional voting systems for regional assemblies is being reversed. To take the exampe of Astrakhan. Back in the elections of 2010 there were 35 seats on the assembly, all elected by first-past-the-post and therefore favouring strong individual campaigns rather than parties. The Medvedev reforms led to a balance of 18 majoritarian seats and 18 elected via party lists – a boost for the chances of United Russia when that party was running strongly in the polls. But this time around there was a reversion to 36 single member seats and no list. The unpopularity of United Russia could not have a chance to affect the result and a slate of loyalists could be assured, albeit running under a number of banners. Other regions have seen the relative proportions of single member and list seats change in different ways, but the trend has been towards electing individuals rather than parties.
The new parties also bear close inspection. I wrote a few months ago about the Kremlin’s efforts to set these up. Four new parties eventually competed across a number of regions, although some of these suffered from the usual attempts by authorities to limit competition by keeping them off the ballot paper.
The four new parties were the New People’s Party (Новые люди), the Direct Democracy Party (Партия прямой демократии), For Justice (За правду) and The Green Alternative (Зеленая альтернатива). They were joined by The Russian Party of Pensioners for Social Justice (РППСС – Российская партия пенсионеров за социальную справедливость) who have been around for a while and sought to capitalise on the unpopularity of the pension reforms.
The Pensioners Party won seats in seven of the nine regions they were on the ballot and gained an average of 5.9%. The New People’s Party (which includes some outwardly liberal figures in its leadership) won an average of just over 7% where they were on the ballot and took 15% in Tomsk, a student city which has been the subject of widespread protests recently. For Truth (apparently a nationalist party) averaged just 2% but obviously enjoyed administrative support in the Ryazan region where they got almost 7% and won seats. For Direct Democracy (a party apparently set up to draw gamers to the polls) was the only new party to fail to win a seat anywhere as they scored between 0.3% and 2.3% in the various regions in which they competed – although that might be too strong a term as there is no evidence of much campaigning taking place.
Perhaps most interesting was The Green Alternative which also did not appear to have any real presence on the ground but who nevertheless managed to win seats in the Chelyabinsk region through suspicious activity in the city of Zlatoust. Here the new party won up to 39% of the vote in some polling stations and averaged almost 20%. Conversely, United Russia was declared to have won just 3%. In concurrent city elections United Russia won 20-30% in the same areas. The local suspicion is that the party vote totals on result sheets were simply swapped around.
But why should such results matter (except to people in the Chelyabinsk Region, of course). It is because any party which holds at least one regional seat can stand candidates for the Duma without having to collect voter signatures. The requirement to collect at least 200,000 voter signatures has long been the means by which genuine opposition candidates such as Alexey Navalny have been kept off the ballot. So at next year’s Duma polls we will see candidates from three of the four new parties on the ballot. The options for the Kremlin are still therefore wide open. They can continue to seek an overall majority for United Russia. They can allow new parties into the Duma and have a broad coalition of deputies who will back President Putin on key issues or they might even allow the Communists and LDPR to gain greater representation.
Keeping the options open assists in the battle against the ‘smart voting’ tactic currently being advocated by Navalny. Whilst some of his allies have made it to the ballot paper and even been successful in municipal elections, his main effort is now focussed on backing whichever candidate looks most likely to beat the Kremlin loyalist. He has been happy to back both Communists and LDPR candidates in recent contests as well as independents. With multiple parties aiming to compete in each seat in the Duma elections next year it might not be obvious who is the Kremlin favourite until the last minute, making it difficult to set up a contest that the opposition has any chance of winning. Navalny might even end up backing the candidate also favoured by the Kremlin. It is a cat and mouse game in which voters are often left out in the cold.
These recent election contests were also notable for formalising some of the new practices brought in during the ‘National Vote’ on the new constitution. Voting was spread across three days with more electronic voting and, supposedly because of worries about Covid-19, voting could also take place outside the confines of the polling station. None of these did anything to boost turnout – the ostensible reason – and participation actually fell in most areas, but they will almost certainly have helped to marshall the ‘payroll vote’ to back establishment candidates.
This article uses figures from research carried out by Alexander Kynev, Associate Professor, Higher School of Economics, and presented to a Chatham House seminar (held on the record). I am grateful for his work.