Legislative “elections” were held in Russia on December 4, 2011. All 450 members of the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian legislature, were up for reelection. Since 2007, members are elected by party-list PR in a single national constituency with a 7% threshold, but parties winning 5-6% win one seat and parties winning 6-7% win 2 seats.
Russia is a one-party dominant authoritarian regime. The man who calls the shots since 2000 is Vladimir Putin, who served as President between 2000 and 2008 and has served as Prime Minister since then, although in a change of traditional roles Putin was truly the top gun and not his clone, President Dmitry Medvedev. In a game of musical chairs, Putin intends to become President again in next year’s presidential election while Medvedev takes his boss’ old job as PM. Putin’s power is backed up by United Russia (ER), the presidential and dominant party whose ideology, officially conservative, is that of any similar Party of Power in any authoritarian regime.
ER, or rather Putin, has built up full control of the state, its institutions, the regions, regional executives (governors are now named by the Kremlin), the secret services and the state-run media. Elections are widely and correctly regarded as being neither free nor fair, but unlike in some of the sub-Saharan dictatorships, elections are not entirely a huge joke. Compared to some of those same authoritarian countries, the amount of fraud is not earth-shattering phenomenal and there is a semblance of actual voting going on. What is more rigged than the actual elections themselves are the process. The state runs the media, and blocks the opposition from accessing media outlets save the few independent ones still in existence. The state’s institutions can conveniently block the most vocal opposition parties from running. More importantly, ER resorts to intimidation, bribery, coercion, threats and group pressure to buy its votes. In a good number of cases, the sheer rigging of the process before the votes means that the regime does not need to sweat the election itself too much.
There is, of course, lots of rigging and fraud in the elections as well. Traditionally, the favoured process is having ER’s stooges (who are often, conveniently, from the electoral commission) fill out tons of ballots themselves with the ‘correct’ party. No surprise, therefore, that high turnout correlates very well with high returns for ER. In other cases, the official results just inflate ER’s vote share by 5-25 percentage points. There is also wide regional variation in rigging. In the republics of the North Caucasus and most ‘ethnic republics’ for that matter, the election ranges from excessively rigged to completely fraudulent fabrication. Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov is particularly good at making up election results, though he’s hardly subtle about it.
ER is the dominant party and is the Kremlin’s party, but the Kremlin has bankrolled, staged or created a good number of new parties outright. The biggest of these parties is the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR), which is neither liberal nor democratic. The LDPR is the one-man party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, its leader and founder. The LDPR was founded as a creature of the KGB and Zhirinovsky is a clown whose only use is making insanely eccentric pronouncements about the greatness of Russia and to run a party where the rednecks of Russia can park their vote. Its ideology is a populist mish-mash of far-right nationalism, some left-wing populism and general crazy stuff. In practice, the LDPR is probably bankrolled by the Kremlin and its MPs are reliable supporters of the Kremlin.
In 2006, the Kremlin staged the founding of “A Just Russia” (SR), an officially socialist party who has been a bit less pliant than the LDPR towards the Kremlin. Its actual position is a bit ambiguous, but there is little doubt that they are pro-Kremlin as well. In 2008, the Kremlin seized control of the old liberal opposition Union of Right Forces (SPS), sold the party off to a rich guy who turned out to be a bit of a thorn in the side, stole the party from him and turned into the “Right Cause”, a “liberal” outfit run by the Kremlin. Only the 90%-dead Yabloko, an old left-liberal party still exists as the main legal liberal opposition party.
The main legal opposition force is the Communist Party (KPRF). The KRPF is run by Gennady Zyuganov, an old hard-line Soviet apparatchik who has run the party with an iron hand. The KRPF receives affection from abroad as being the sole opposition party, but in reality the KPRF is as unsavoury as the other parties. It is an old Stalinist party full of nostalgia of the Soviet Union and also quite keen on invoking Russian nationalism, to the point where its critics have styled it a fascistoid party. Still, the KPRF is the only half-serious opposition party, but they have given up at being a competent opposition years ago and seems quite happy playing the role of an official opposition which opposes the regime but is too lazy to oppose it in a meaningful way.
Vladimir Putin built up his support because of Russia’s political stability under his reign, an oil-fueled economic boom (5-8% economic growth in his second term), an increase in the standard of living, restoring order (especially in Chechnya) and a nationalistic foreign policy which re-asserted Russia’s role in the concert of nations as a key world power. However, the charm has begun to wear off. The main culprit would be the economy: Russia’s economy was in recession in 2009 when it receded by nearly 8%. There is frustration and anger in rural Russia, where many people still live in poverty. There are other factors as well: the middle-classes who have enjoyed the fruits of the economic boom may now be hoping for democratization, of which there are no signs to date. Corruption is also a major issue, and there is much anger towards ER (branded the “party of crooks and thieves”) and Putin’s stalwarts who have lined their pockets.
Turnout fell to 60%, apparently an all-time low. Results are, with 99% reporting:
ER 49.29% (-15.01%) winning 238 seats (-77)
KPRF 19.2% (+7.63%) winning 92 seats (+35)
SR 13.35% (+5.61%) winning 64 seats (+26)
LDPR 11.68% (+3.54%) winning 56 seats (+16)
Yabloko 3.43% (+1.84%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Patriots 0.97% (+0.08%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Right Cause 0.6% (+0.36%) winning 0 seats (nc)
The election was marred by obvious cases of fraud, to which I’ll come back to in an instant. Yet, the results were still a significant blow to Putin, whose party suffered a pretty major setback. It is the obvious result of the regime’s increasing shakiness, which although not a direct threat to it right now indicates that the regime’s heyday might very well be gone. It is unlikely, however, that the results will be a “wake up call” for the regime, which is instead far more likely to resort to increased authoritarianism and heavy-handed tactic in a bid to maintain power which will only become more desperate as time goes. Yet, the opposition to the regime could only go on growing in such circumstances. Those who think that any of this means that the 2012 election will be closer than originally thought is obviously kidding themselves, because there is no way Putin will be allowed to lose – besides, his opponents will likely consist, as always, of a Stalinist and a stand-up comedian. However, the Kremlin’s gravy train is increasingly shaky, a renewed economic crisis seriously threatens the regime, and the factions within the Kremlin could prove harder to maintain under a united front. Putin’s reign-for-life, which I’m sure he’d like, could prove harder to maintain. But it’s unlikely he’ll leave by his own will, rather he’ll be forced out or his regime will trickle out once he disappears somehow.
ER’s vote was probably boosted through rigging by anywhere between 10 and 20%. Its real support is probably something like 30-35% at most. Again, there was much regional variation in the rigging and results. Northern European Russia around St. Petersburg and Karelia proved, probably, to have the ‘fairest’ process. In sharp contrast, Ramzan Kadyrov proved again that while he’s good at rigging, he’s hardly subtle about it. ER won 99.48% of the vote in Chechnya, although turnout was shockingly and dangerously low at 93.31%. Make a better effort in March, Ramzan! ER also won 91.62% in Mordovia, 91.44% in Dagestan, 90.96% in Ingushetia, 89.84% in Karachay-Cherkessia and 85.29% in Tuva. These are also the regions which saw some of the heaviest turnouts, proving that, in Russia, high turnout=vote fraud. In contrast, turnout was pretty low (often below 50%) in places where ER didn’t do “as well”.
Most of the places where ER did well tend to be autonomous republics, and by consequence tend to have a large ethnic minority population. These places receive the most pork from the gravy train, their bosses are probably quite powerful on the ground and have tons of powers to do what they want with the elections. Two other places where ER did particularly well have benefited from the gravy train: Chukotka, the uber-remote Siberian wasteland which used to be run by Roman Abramovich and Yamalo-Nenetsia, where Gazprom is huge.
There was also some major vote fraud in Moscow City, where ER is claimed to have won 46% against 19% for the KPRF. In this case, the city’s new mayor Sergey Sobyanin is likely out to prove himself to the Kremlin as a good election manager. In contrast, ER won just 32.8% in Moscow oblast, which surrounds the city. An exit poll in Moscow had placed ER at 27.5% against 25.5% for the KPRF, with Yabloko winning 16%; but conveniently all traces of that exit poll were erased from the internets.