This Sunday, millions of Russians will be heading to the polls to vote in elections for Russia’s parliament, the State Duma; the eighth since the first free election in 1990. Many observers and ordinary Russians believe that this election is the least fascinating, as there is much less media coverage of it than one might expect, and little interest from the ordinary people of Russia.
I beg to differ. Although the result is terribly predictable (a victory for President Vladimir Putin’s party, United Russia), this election does nonetheless give an opportunity for the development of a more coherent opposition, as, unlike in the last Duma election, more opposition candidates and parties are allowed to run. This may be the first stepping stone towards a time when the opposition could become so powerful, Putin could no longer ignore the demand for a completely free and fair elections.
The last Parliamentary election, which was held in December 2011, was marred by widespread accusations of electoral fraud. It came at a time when United Russia and then-Prime Minister Putin, were experiencing a of record unpopularity, with the party consistently below 50% in the polls. Putin himself was even booed when speaking before a boxing match, only for the state-run Channel One to try and mute the boos.
During the 2011 election, which, unlike this one, was conducted under proportional representation with a 5% threshold for entry into the Duma, opposition parties accused United Russia of driving supporters around different polling stations in order for supporters to cast multiple votes. One young couple claimed that they received a stamp in their passport in order to vote at multiple polling stations. They then went to a school which had three polling stations and voted at all three.
The blatant vote-rigging was not the only troublesome feature of the 2011 election. Opposition parties were required to gain certain numbers of signatures in order to run – only seven achieved the minimum, of which four passed the 5% threshold for entrance into the State Duma. United Russia did so, along with three parties largely tolerated by United Russia (the Communists, the so-called Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and Fair Russia), because they support the Kremlin’s position on most significant issues. This angered many of the more progressive, metropolitan liberals, who felt their voices were not being heard.
As a result, a series of massive protests took place in central Moscow, accompanied by smaller ones in other cities across Russia. Although a crackdown from authorities quickly stamped them out, Putin and his associates realised that, if they were to maintain their grip on power and their somewhat high popularity, they had to accept greater participation of opposition candidates this time.
Many commentators argue that this makes little difference. The change of the voting system from proportional representation to parallel voting (where half the seats are election through PR and half via single-member constituencies through First Past The Post), would seem to give United Russia more seats, as the largest party in a particular constituency wins, regardless of how much the other parties got. Throw into the mix the state-owned media and some of the private channels owned by Putin sympathisers refusing to afford outside parties advertising time or campaign coverage, and the picture becomes clearer still. This is not even to mention allegations of authorities heavily restricting campaigning by opposition groups.
Despite these difficulties, however, opposition can feel hope in comparing this election to the previous one; the very fact that more candidates are allowed to run gives Russian voters more choice. It remains to be seen where vote-rigging will feature in the upcoming election, but if there are enough votes for the opposition, it could still function as either a carrot or a stick to encourage Putin to reform the system much further or face a similar situation to the Maidan protests in Ukraine. The single-member constituencies also allow particular opposition candidates to try and build up their strength in certain areas to get elected, similarly to how the Liberal Democrats managed to win so many seats in 2005 in the UK, and thus although the turn to a majoritarian voting system benefits United Russia, there are clearly ways for their opponents to exploit it, if they play their card right.
Nevertheless, the opposition is quite divided, and some opposition parties are more unpopular with each other than United Russia is. We can hope, however, that the opposition can take comfort in this election as the first brick in the long road to change.
Phil Sheppard is a third-year student of History, at the London School of Economics
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