Sunday, October 17, 2021

Russia’s State Duma Elections Will Boost Authoritarianism, Experts Say

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A bus passes a United Russia campaign poster posted ahead of the Russian State Duma elections for the eighth convocation scheduled for September 17-19.

Vladimir Smirnov | TASS | fake images

Russia will hold elections to the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, starting Friday and experts hope the vote will consolidate President Vladimir Putin’s power base in the Kremlin.

The ruling United Russia party is widely expected to win a “convincing victory” in the vote that will take place between September 17 and 19, with one analyst saying the election “heralds more authoritarianism” as a result.

“The Kremlin’s goal is to retain a constitutional majority, ensure the legitimacy of the vote, and prevent large-scale post-election protests. Major changes in the cabinet or in the government’s political direction are unlikely after the vote,” Andrius Tursa , Central and Eastern Europe adviser to Teneo Intelligence, said in a note before the vote.

About 108 million voters in Russia have the right to elect 450 members of the State Duma for a five-year term. This year’s vote will take place over a three-day period due to the Covid-19 pandemic. United Russia has been the dominant party in the country for decades and enthusiastically supports Putin, although it has been running as an independent candidate since 2018.

Adeline Van Houtte, Europe analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said Wednesday that the vote will be a major test for United Russia given insufficient financial support for businesses and households, coupled with a weakened labor market that has undermined the party’s popularity in the US. last years.

“United Russia is now scoring around 30%, substantially lower than in 2016. Despite its poor grades, it maintains a comfortable lead over its main competitors. We expect United Russia and other pro-Kremlin affiliates to retain a large majority in the Duma “. . “

Suppression of opponents

Analysts expect there will be little transparency when it comes to electoral standards, given increasingly limited freedom of the press and efforts to suppress and neutralize political opposition in Russia, in particular jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his supporters. .

Van Houtte said a major crackdown on real and perceived opponents is intensifying before parliamentary elections “and is likely to continue afterward.”

Despite having Navalny jailed earlier this year, Russian authorities have continued to dismantle the opposition movement and the activist’s base of support.

In June, three political associations linked to Navalny were banned and branded “extremists”, meaning that any member of Navalny’s organizations or supporters can face prison terms and not be able to run for public office.

“Given the limited presence of international observers and a heavy crackdown on the opposition, independent media and civic organizations over the past year, the next elections will be the least transparent and competitive during the more than 20 years in power of the president. Vladimir Putin, “Tursa said. , adding that United Russia was still ready to secure an absolute majority of seats and could retain a constitutional majority in the lower house despite a recent dip in popularity.

Token opposition

Russian analysts say the elections have the appearance of a democratic vote but are actually closely controlled by the state and other parties on the ballot are symbolic opposition parties approved by the Kremlin.

“So-called systemic opposition parties” are currently represented in the State Duma, Tursa noted, citing the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and a Russia Just for Truth, as well as a new party called New town. , which targets disappointed urban voters. These parties do not represent a “genuine opposition,” he said.

“As a result, the Duma will continue to strongly support the Kremlin,” Tursa noted.

For the Kremlin, Tursa said there are three goals. Mainly, “to reaffirm the undisputed control of United Russia over the State Duma by maintaining a constitutional majority, which has a practical and symbolic meaning before the presidential elections of 2024.”

Second, the Kremlin wants to “maintain legitimacy among political elites and the general electorate by ensuring good turnout, a credible voting result, and limited reporting of any electoral irregularities.”

And third, he wants to avoid widespread protests like those seen after the 2011 legislative elections or in neighboring Belarus last year, Tursa said.

And the economy?

Major changes in the cabinet or in the direction of government policy seem unlikely given that the ruling party’s program continues with key policy areas for a long time, such as family well-being, infrastructure development of communities. regions of Russia and the protection of the country’s interests abroad, said Tursa. .

Liam Peach, an emerging markets economist at Capital Economics, agrees that United Russia will retain its majority, but noted that “the political context is fragile” and that the government could soon intervene more in the economy.

“Public support for United Russia has fallen dramatically in the last five years and President Putin’s approval rating is close to record lows. Stagnant real income since 2013 may have played a role,” he said in a note on Wednesday. .

“A key implication of this tension is that the government has taken an increasingly interventionist approach to the economy in an effort to support households. One aspect of this is the provision of social assistance, which has become a key priority. for the government. Cash payments to families, children, retirees and military personnel have been announced before the September elections. “

Peach said his team believes that the emphasis on social support will be permanent in Russia.

“This shift toward higher social spending has its roots before the pandemic and was presented alongside President Putin’s plans to amend the constitution. With the depth of the crisis and a rebound in oil prices boosting public finances, the depth of the crisis having passed, It appears that the government has begun to rekindle these plans and to put issues related to the standard of living higher on its agenda. “

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