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Putin’s Party Is Preparing for a Post-Majority Future

Slow shifts in the Russian electorate are making dominance harder—so United Russia is changing the rules.

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.
A polling station in Moscow
Members of a local electoral commission empty a ballot box at a polling station after the last day of the three-day Russian parliamentary election, in Moscow on Sept. 19. Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images

Russia’s elections are often dismissed as merely a symbolic ritual conferring a veneer of democratic legitimacy on the Kremlin’s authoritarian leadership. But despite limitations on political freedoms, democratic politics are still at the basis of governance in the Russian Federation. The recent elections, which have effectively concluded, although the final results won’t be certified until Sept. 24, are a good example of this.

The State Duma, which serves as Russia’s elected parliament and since a referendum in July 2020 has been invested with significantly expanded powers, was the main story of the recent elections. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ruling party, United Russia, is reported to have won a total of 324 seats, with the opposition taking the remaining 126, split among various parties but with the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) taking the lion’s share at 57 seats, and A Just Russia and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia—an incongruously named far-right group—likely taking 27 and 21.

The vote for the Duma is twofold: 225 deputies are elected in a party list vote using proportional representation with a 5 percent threshold, and 225 are elected in single-member constituencies with a first-past-the-post vote. Parties need to score a minimum of 5 percent of the popular vote to enter the Duma. United Russia took 49.82 percent of the vote for 126 seats on the party list and won a plurality in 198 constituencies. The various opposition parties only managed to collect a total of 27 seats among them through the single-member constituencies, led by the CPRF at nine seats and A Just Russia at eight seats. The spread between United Russia’s take and that of the opposition in these single-member constituencies is dramatic—and the sole source of the ruling party’s legislative dominance.

Russia’s elections are often dismissed as merely a symbolic ritual conferring a veneer of democratic legitimacy on the Kremlin’s authoritarian leadership. But despite limitations on political freedoms, democratic politics are still at the basis of governance in the Russian Federation. The recent elections, which have effectively concluded, although the final results won’t be certified until Sept. 24, are a good example of this.

The State Duma, which serves as Russia’s elected parliament and since a referendum in July 2020 has been invested with significantly expanded powers, was the main story of the recent elections. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ruling party, United Russia, is reported to have won a total of 324 seats, with the opposition taking the remaining 126, split among various parties but with the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) taking the lion’s share at 57 seats, and A Just Russia and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia—an incongruously named far-right group—likely taking 27 and 21.

The vote for the Duma is twofold: 225 deputies are elected in a party list vote using proportional representation with a 5 percent threshold, and 225 are elected in single-member constituencies with a first-past-the-post vote. Parties need to score a minimum of 5 percent of the popular vote to enter the Duma. United Russia took 49.82 percent of the vote for 126 seats on the party list and won a plurality in 198 constituencies. The various opposition parties only managed to collect a total of 27 seats among them through the single-member constituencies, led by the CPRF at nine seats and A Just Russia at eight seats. The spread between United Russia’s take and that of the opposition in these single-member constituencies is dramatic—and the sole source of the ruling party’s legislative dominance.

Numerous allegations of fraud marred the election, and parties and independent candidates that were not already registered faced significant hurdles to gain ballot access. By far the biggest controversy was the sudden and suspicious reversal of the CPRF lead in several of Moscow’s districts that use a newly introduced system of electronic voting. The CPRF says it is refusing to recognize these results and despite a ban on rallies due to COVID-19 concerns has already held protest rallies.

The most significant outcome is clearly United Russia’s ability to maintain a strong majority in the Duma. While this is no surprise due to United Russia’s strong grasp on Russian society, media, and politics, there are hints in the results at how Russian democratic politics may change in the future. For the first time, for instance, since United Russia took part in elections, a fifth party managed to make it into the Duma based on the list vote. The New People party, scoring 5.32 percent, broke through the 5 percent threshold to win seats in parliament.

Due to the rise of a new party into the Duma and United Russia’s own result falling just below 50 percent of the list vote, United Russia won only 126 out of that set of 225 seats up for grabs. It bolstered its command of the Duma as a whole thanks to its dominance in the single-member constituencies, but the trends shown in the list vote show the growing pressure from opposition parties that Russia’s rulers face in legislative elections.

Despite these indications of growing opposition appeal and what may be the slowly waning electoral strength of the ruling party itself, the dual voting system in Russia’s Duma effectively keeps United Russia in strong control—and stops opposition parties from diverging from the United Russia agenda. As long as United Russia wields a powerful majority in the Duma, and with little prospect of this change electorally, opposition parties have few incentives to differentiate themselves from United Russia.

Instead, going along with United Russia’s main interests offers more immediate benefits as part of what’s known as the “systemic opposition”—groups effectively co-opted into the power structure even if nominally opposed to the ruling party. For this reason, the shifts in Russian electoral behavior are unlikely to actually result in significant changes in political behavior at this point. Yet if the electorate keeps shifting, it could spell a dramatically different future for Russian politics, and this is exactly what the Kremlin has been preparing for through its recent constitutional amendments.

United Russia has carefully managed Russia’s electoral system to maintain its position of power, but this will become increasingly tough. The party already faced a serious challenge to its legislative majority back in 2011, when the elections (at that time still based entirely on a list vote across a single federal district) granted them only 238 out of 450 seats in the Duma. While still a majority, this result represented a significant loss of 77 seats compared to previous elections in 2006.

In a defensive maneuver, Putin defended the position of the ruling party by adjusting the voting laws in 2013, reintroducing single-member constituencies. This measure pushed United Russia results back up to a three-quarters majority in the Duma after the 2016 elections, now reduced – but still above the two-thirds majority needed for constitutional change.

The Kremlin also translated this strong majority in the Duma during its previous legislative term into critical constitutional amendments that will protect it from stray elections in the future. These amendments, enacted in July 2020, weren’t necessarily geared toward protecting the legislative majority but rather sought to structure Russian governance in such a way that it may be able to deal with a loss of said majority, as well as the anticipated replacement of Putin as president. Effectively, this new constitution provides a basis for a separation of powers, making different parts of Russia’s government (including the presidency, various cabinet ministers, the Duma, and representatives of Russia’s federal subjects) more dependent on one another to formulate effective policy.

After the recent elections, Russian politics are likely to remain stable, but these constitutional changes anticipate a number of electoral and political challenges that will become more pronounced in forthcoming elections over the next decade. This includes the 2026 and 2031 parliamentary elections, as well as the 2024 and 2030 presidential votes.

The central issue for United Russia and the Kremlin to tackle will be the anticipated generational change in leadership unfolding across the Russian political spectrum over this period. United Russia itself draws its coherence and popularity from being the party closely tied to Putin and his circle. But Putin, who is 68, is not immortal, and many of his more popular associates such as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu are contemporaries in age. The nominal chairman of United Russia, Dmitry Medvedev, is at 56 the youngest leader of a major long-standing political party in Russia, but he is wildly unpopular. As a result, United Russia must cultivate new younger politicians or risk suffering from the same gerontocracy that plagued previous Soviet governments.

United Russia and the Kremlin are not the only ones facing a generational shift. CPRF leader Gennady Zyuganov is 77, and his party is increasingly facing division from within its ranks over its direction after he is no longer leader. But the smaller parties may be better positioned to take full advantage of the votes of a generation who have known no leader but Putin—especially after he goes.

In a post-Putin era, United Russia may find it difficult to defend its legislative majority. The party, which in essence is still a coalition of varying interests, could even split—or absorb other groups. On the side of the opposition, similar challenges exist for the Communist Party, while smaller opposition parties may join New People in the rise above the 5 percent threshold. The current level of stability and inertia defined by the United Russia majority will not last under the pressure of these changes. The big question is whether this might, someday, result in a new multiparty polity—or just produce a reshaped soft authoritarian coalition.

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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