President Vladimir Putin’s ruling United Russia party defied economic concerns and a recent slump in support to retain a parliamentary majority – to the surprise of almost no one.
The official tally announced by Russia’s Central Election Commission on Sept. 20, 2021, was met with immediate skepticism. The three-day vote has been plagued with allegations of poll violations, the exclusion of opposition leaders and delays in the announcement of online voting results that strongly favored regime candidates.
The outcome means United Russia retains a constitutional majority in parliament. The other big winners in the national election were smaller, pro-Kremlin parties.
If taken on face value, the results would suggest a turnaround in approval rates for United Russia. Public support for the party dropped to 27% nationally in the months before the election. A leaked internal poll in March showed that 55% of people in Moscow said they would support opposition candidates. Yet United Russia claimed victory even in Moscow – although the results there were immediately questioned by opposition parties that aired concern over votes cast online without anonymity or independent observation.
The election coincides with a period of economic stagnation, high household inflation, the ongoing coronavirus crisis and environmental disasters – all of which undermined support for the party that many Russians call “the Party of Crooks and Thieves.”
But even with these gloomy indicators for United Russia, decades of research on Russian elections prepared me for the results. In fact, the latest victory by Putin’s party has been years in the making.
Democratic veneer, authoritarian result
In 2012, Putin ordered a new election law that would elect half the parliament in U.S.-style congressional districts. This gave the Presidential Administration, which manages Russian elections from the Kremlin, a new toolkit to determine electoral outcomes.
In 2016, Putin’s party won over 90% of these new districts.
United Russia’s Sept. 20 victory maintains Putin’s parliamentary bloc – made up of seats won in district races plus seats won in national party-based contests – at 66%. That’s enough votes to enact constitutional change.
In addition to the 2012 election reform that has helped United Russia stay in power, Putin found other ways to boost his party’s results.
New rules allowing Russians in parts of eastern Ukraine – an area held by Russian-backed separatists – to participate in the election provided additional support to United Russia’s national vote totals.
And in response to COVID-19 practices, some votes were cast online or in mobile precincts over three consecutive days beginning on Sept. 17. These innovations helped hide fraud from election observers.
Low turnout magnified the Kremlin’s successful mobilization of workers dependent on state paychecks.
A survey prior to the election found that United Russia support among those intending to vote was 42% – much higher than the national average of 27% of eligible voters.
A crackdown on opposition
As Putin develops new strategies to stay in power, so have opposition activists trying to counter such tactics.
In 2016, the jailed opposition leader Aleksei Navalny and his team developed a strategy of electoral dissent called Smart Voting. They used technology to ask voters to support non-United Russia candidates in order to defeat the party of power. A study by two Russian scholars shows that independent candidates have indeed bolstered opposition success and secured victories in regional elections across Russia.
But it led to counter-strategies by the Kremlin to weaken opposition politicians at the ballot box. Local election officials registered candidates with the same name as popular opposition figures in the same districts to deceive voters and draw off support.
Repression also played an important role in limiting communication among opposition voters. In June 2021, the Kremlin declared Navalny’s network, the Anti-Corruption Foundation, an extremist organization – a designation previously used against terrorist groups. Russians who donated, participated in protests, and even just distributed information about Smart Voting, have been subjected to stiff penalties.
Meanwhile, Google and Apple removed Navalny’s Smart Voting from its online stores as voting got underway, seemingly under the pressure of Russian authorities who say the app is illegal.
The Kremlin and local officials even developed its own version of Smart Voting to confuse disengaged voters.
These tactics have contained, but could not eliminate, the Kremlin’s uncertainty in the run-up to September’s election.
Scrubbing of electoral rolls
Navalny team leader Lyubov Sobel was convicted of violating COVID-19 rules by protesting and then forced to leave Russia.
The Russian electoral watchdog Golos reported that new laws made over 9 million Russians ineligible to compete in the elections. That includes many members of other political parties who attended the rallies to support Navalny in February 2021. Under the same law, convicted protesters can lose their right to vote.
The attacks were widespread. Popular city deputies and housing activists in Moscow and Tver were arrested and removed from the ballot. Pavel Grudinin, a Communist Party leader and former presidential candidate, was eliminated from September’s race.
Russian voters respond?
As I show in my recent book on authoritarian elections, repressive strategies like Putin’s provide Russian voters with new information about the true nature of the regime and its waning support. That information can spark outrage – and mass protest.
My data also suggests that a protest vanguard is essential to kick off a protest action. In Russia, new laws ensured that a new generation of protest leaders are in jail or exile, or under threat.
At the same time, slightly more Russians say that they would participate in post-election protests than before. Even more challenging for the Kremlin, new data from the Norwegian LegitRuss project confirms significant regional variation in the Russian people’s willingness to contest falsified elections. Some regions have scheduled protest events for later in the week.
Regardless of the not-so-surprising victory of United Russia, the cost of this victory was very high for Putin, his elections team and the party. These dynamic will be amplified in 2024, when Putin is scheduled to run for a fifth term in office.
Editor’s note: Portions of this article originally appeared in a previous article published on Aug. 16, 2021.
Regina Smyth receives funding from The Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars.