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Russia’s Ruling Party Wants a Big Win in Upcoming Elections

United Russia has seriously limited the opposition but is losing popularity itself.

By , a doctoral candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science’s department of international history, and , an analyst at Force Analysis where he studies strategic intelligence problems.
Russia’s prime minister speaks to the State Duma.
Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin gives a report on the government’s work during the previous year at the State Duma, the lower chamber of Russia’s parliament, in Moscow on May 12. Alexander Astafyev/Sputnik/AP via Getty Images

From Sept. 17 to Sept. 19, Russians will go to the polls to elect their parliament: the State Duma. The Russian parliament, though still less powerful than the presidency, has acquired expanded responsibilities under the new constitution, especially in regard to economic affairs. The institution also serves as a vital means of communication between various segments of the population and the government, relaying grievances and concerns upward and distributing patronage and largess downward.

United Russia, the ruling party, is defending their super majority of 336 seats but faces increasing challenges due to its own unpopularity and mounting grievances. Although United Russia is highly unlikely to lose control, maintaining a large majority is key both to ensuring its own cohesion and shoring up legitimacy of the Putin government.

Russian elections are not entirely free and fair, but the actual vote itself has grown more secure over the years. This effort to secure the vote results from the government’s need for credibility in the form of a popular stamp of approval and in reaction to backlash over past instances and allegations of tampering. Although voting irregularities still occur at some scale, particularly at less centrally controlled regional levels, United Russia has primarily focused on limiting the ability of opposition groups to compete on a level playing field by making it difficult to get on the ballot, limiting access to media, and adding layers of bureaucratic restrictions.

From Sept. 17 to Sept. 19, Russians will go to the polls to elect their parliament: the State Duma. The Russian parliament, though still less powerful than the presidency, has acquired expanded responsibilities under the new constitution, especially in regard to economic affairs. The institution also serves as a vital means of communication between various segments of the population and the government, relaying grievances and concerns upward and distributing patronage and largess downward.

United Russia, the ruling party, is defending their super majority of 336 seats but faces increasing challenges due to its own unpopularity and mounting grievances. Although United Russia is highly unlikely to lose control, maintaining a large majority is key both to ensuring its own cohesion and shoring up legitimacy of the Putin government.

Russian elections are not entirely free and fair, but the actual vote itself has grown more secure over the years. This effort to secure the vote results from the government’s need for credibility in the form of a popular stamp of approval and in reaction to backlash over past instances and allegations of tampering. Although voting irregularities still occur at some scale, particularly at less centrally controlled regional levels, United Russia has primarily focused on limiting the ability of opposition groups to compete on a level playing field by making it difficult to get on the ballot, limiting access to media, and adding layers of bureaucratic restrictions.

United Russia has strong political control over the Russian Federation; although over the years, the electoral legitimacy its rule is based on has started to wane. One problem is its inability to fully deliver on economic promises after a spate of crises following the 2008 recession. Reduced purchasing power and the dwindling value of the ruble have made the government appear weaker. United Russia also faces growing pressure due to its authoritarianism and association with corruption (or the “kleptocracy,” as the opposition refers to it). The Russian leadership has become increasingly unpopular, and United Russia has had electoral setbacks, such as losing nearly a third of its seats in the 2019 Moscow City Council elections.

The party’s goals extend beyond simply trying to maintain its majority. United Russia currently holds just shy of three quarters of Duma seats, and seeing its share reduced could have significant consequences. For starters, United Russia’s ability to modify the constitution of the Russian Federation, which it skillfully applied in 2020 well ahead of the upcoming Duma elections, could be severely hampered if its majority fell below two-thirds.

Perhaps even more important, a reduced reserve in Duma votes could complicate the cohesion of United Russia as a political party or its ability to leverage so-called systemic opposition parties in the State Duma. As the electoral vehicle of a diverse Russian elite, United Russia is under constant strain from diverging political demands. The lower United Russia’s majority in the Duma is, the greater is the risk of splitting into factions as individual Duma delegates seek to exploit thinner margins for their own agendas. Such factionalism could also provide opportunities for Russia’s systemic opposition parties (the Communist Party, for example) to carve their own paths, lending support as a swing voting bloc. Currently the systemic opposition acts more as a lobbying group for its members and constituents than a unified opposition. Perceptions of an electorally weakening United Russia in general is also likely to signal these parties to detach themselves from the ruling party to strengthen their own positions in future elections.

To counteract the various challenges it faces, United Russia has taken a carrot and stick approach. For the carrot, it has sought to show itself as being a responsive government shuffling out or even arresting corrupt local politicians while also sidelining increasingly unpopular figures and promoting those with broader appeal. The slow downfall of former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is part of this. The former president and long-serving prime minister stepped down as prime minister in 2020 to be replaced by technocrat Mikhail Mishustin. Although Medvedev remains the chairperson of United Russia, he has been removed from the party’s election list.

Instead, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shogyu and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov are at the top of the party list. Both men are unlikely to take seats in the Duma. Both are very popular as they are seen as standing up for Russia’s interests abroad and as being far less corrupt than Medvedev, who has long been exposed as having expensive tastes. Medvedev has been quiescent about his own sidelining, remaining supportive of United Russia and noting in a recent interview the risk of political instability that comes without a dominant party.

United Russia has also attempted to bolster its economic image. Recent constitutional amendments contained a laundry list of populist economic measures, including guarantees for more generous pension and social benefits. The government has also sought to show itself as investing in a more prosperous Russia with bold development plans and a shift to more effective governance under Mishustin’s management.

The stick in United Russia’s approach is using various means of prosecution and harassment to make it difficult for the new generation of opposition, who are from outside the managed opposition parties that have long had a presence in parliament, to mount coherent campaigns. Most prominent among these is the decision to classify the imprisoned dissident Alexei Navalny and his supporters as members of an extremist organization, barring them from standing for the election.

Other major obstacles also exist to opposition figures mounting a challenge. Firstly, any political party competing on the party list must first be considered legal, which can be difficult considering the electoral commission is far from impartial. After being approved, a party must then receive 5 percent of the national vote to qualify for a seat in parliament or compete in one of the single member constituencies. Independents can stand in a single member constituency, but to do, so they must gather 15,000 signatures from registered voters in the area within 45 days and then have those signatures verified. That’s a challenging task, especially as many voters distrust such petitions or fear their support of an opposition figure could lead to retribution.

By far the opposition’s greatest challenge though is its fragmented nature. The only thing that unites the opposition is they are against United Russia—beyond that, their policies, political ideals, and views vary widely. One reason Navalny was targeted was he—like previous opposition figures, such as Andrei Sakharov or Boris Yeltsin—was able to serve as a unifying figure for the disparate opposition groups to rally behind.

Now that open association with Navalny is illegal, the opposition remains fragmented but still active; and increasingly, independents and younger members of established opposition parties are making isolated inroads against United Russia. It is plausible that at least a few seats will be lost to the opposition in this election. The opposition will continue to make inroads in regional and local politics by focusing on bread and butter issues. Yet the opposition remains deeply divided and unable to offer a coherent alternative vision for Russia other than being outside the established power structure.

Ultimately, United Russia remains in a strong electoral position and is likely to dominate political life in the Russian Federation for some time to come. With challenges mounting, however, the party’s focus will increasingly shift to maintaining that position domestically. This could represent a break from the past, when United Russia enjoyed the freedom—granted by its electoral security—to focus on policy rather than politicking. The party itself may also have to evolve in terms of how it shapes itself for this new role and how it deals with internal tensions that may arise from it.

Jeff Hawn is a doctoral candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science’s department of international history. His research focuses on the 1993 Russian constitutional crisis and the post-Cold War international order.

Sim Tack is an analyst at Force Analysis where he studies strategic intelligence problems and monitors military capabilities and operations. He has a thematic focus on Russian foreign-policy behavior and capabilities.

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