Macro Analysis /
Russia

Putin's United Russia poised to win majority at September 19 parliamentary vote

  • Ruling party strives to reach publicly announced goal of constitutional majority

  • Four parties certain to cross 5% threshold, another two have limited chances

  • Elections not to result in major changes of political landscape

EmergingMarketWatch
18 August 2021

Vladimir Putin's United Russia is headed toward another decisive win at the Sep 19 vote for the lower parliamentary chamber, the Duma. One of the main questions is whether the party will be able to secure again constitutional majority of 301 out of 450 MPs. Even if not, United Russia will remain in full control as it can easily secure the needed support from the other parliamentary parties, which polls indicate should remain the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) and Just Russia, which this time will be in coalition with Patriots and For Truth. It is possible that a fifth party will enter parliament for the first time since 2003, which would reduce the number of MPs for United Russia, but still would not be critical. The main threat for the ruling regime can be scandals and widespread protests in relation to the elections, the chances for which seem limited.

The Duma vote will be held along with elections for governors of eight regions and local parliaments of 39 regions, which should boost the turnout somewhat. The elections come after the latest crackdown on the opposition and independent media, which began after the constitutional referendum in Jul 2020. A number of opposition figures and independent journalists have been arrested and some media outlets were forced to close. Most notably, in Aug 2020 the opposition leader Alexey Navalny was poisoned with nerve agent Novichok, which the West blamed on the ruling regime. The jailing of Navalny upon his arrival in Russia in late January sparked protests attended by hundreds of thousands of people. The protests were accompanied by mass arrests and more charges against Navalny's aides, some of whom fled abroad. Notably, the parliament amended the extremist law to ban some non-systemic parties and NGOs connected to them. The main target were Navalny's regional structures and his Anti-Corruption Foundation, which were forced to close. NGOs close to exiled oligarch Mikhail Khodrokovsky had the same fate. The crackdown might serve to discourage many protest voters, which should reduce turnout and further boost United Russia's performance. In addition, the Central Election Commission banned many opposition candidates from running, although it has subsequently revoked the decision on some of them.

The elections will be held against the background of the pandemic and the ongoing third covid wave. After allowing voting during the whole week at the Jul 1 2020 constitutional referendum when the goal was higher turnout, now the authorities decided to opt for three-day voting. Surveys have suggested that multiple-day vote is approved by most citizens and could boost the turnout. However, casting a ballot outside the premises of polling stations is not viewed favourably and thus the Central Election Commission decided to implement it only on rare occasions this time. Moreover, the ban on large gatherings prevents party rallies, which benefits the ruling United Russia thanks to its large media coverage. A new spike of covid cases could spur infection fears and depress turnout, but given the progressing vaccination and high number of recently recovered, the epidemiological situation should improve, rather than worsen, in a month. In regard to the pandemic's impact on ratings, it was regional governors who were tasked with implementing covid restrictions and mandatory vaccination for some groups. Therefore, Putin's rating was largely unscathed, while the cabinet registered only limited popularity loss.

As usual, the latest economic developments will be an important factor for the vote. The decline of living standards, rising inflation, and the 2018 pension reform will trim somewhat United Russia's rating, as it remains closely linked to that of the executive power.

Legislative background

The Duma is elected for five years and has 450 members. Half of them are elected by proportional representation through party lists and the other half by vote in single-seat constituencies using first-by-the-post system. The recent constitutional changes envisage strengthening the parliament's powers at the expense of the president, although the change turned out less ambitious than initially announced by Putin in Jan 2020. Previously the Duma only had to give consent to the president to appoint the PM, now it will need to approve the PM and all cabinet members, except for security ministers such as the interior, defense and justice ministers. The nomination of cabinet members and their formal appointment and dismissal is still reserved for the head of state. The changes are believed to be aimed at limiting the powers of the next president and will certainly not lead to any change in the next government formation as Putin remains firmly in control of United Russia and the parliament as a whole.

This time the authorities will allow Russian citizens in the Donbass region to vote online, after granting passports to 478K people there in 2016-20. These votes should predominantly go for Putin's United Russia, in our view. Moreover, Moscow residents will be able to vote online for second time after the 2020 constitutional referendum.

Political parties

A total of 14 parties are registered for the elections, the same as in the 2016 vote and above the just 7 in 2011. In addition to United Russia, CPRF, LDPR and Just Russia, which have been the only parliamentary represented parties since 2003, New People and Russian Party of Pensioners for Social Justice have some limited chances for crossing the 5% threshold.

United Russia

The party remains headed by the former president and PM Dmitry Medvedev, but it is centered around Vladimir Putin and securing the needed legislative support for him is the party's main goal. United Russia lacks a coherent ideology and includes politicians and public figures with a variety of views and backgrounds. The party responds to desires for stability and safety after the turbulent 1990s. Restoring Russia's superpower role and containing the West has a key place in its ideology. In its ongoing electoral campaign the party is apparently trying also to respond to growing interest in domestic issues. Namely, its electoral slogans promise more child benefits, investments in education, rural areas development.

The party list is headed by Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov - the two most popular cabinet members. Other candidates include Dennis Protsenko, a hospital chief, who gained popularity with his media appearances around the covid pandemic, and Children Ombudsman Anna Kuznetsova. Putin was not included in the election list, although there was speculation that the party will try to boost its rating with such a move. Still, Putin recently expressed his firm support for United Russia and the party is actively using his image in its campaign. United Russia has publicly set a goal of winning constitutional majority and reportedly targets getting 45% of the votes with turnout at 45%.

The Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF)

The CPRF is a traditional Marxist-Leninist party with a nationalist twist. It continues to celebrate Stalin, which according to some repels more moderate voters, while maintaining the core older electorate. The CPRF has been led by Gennady Zyuganov since 1993 and he looks like the preferred option for United Russia as well. Zyuganov is largely seen as a proven partner to the ruling regime, who should contain the protest mood prevalent in the younger wing of the party. Still, the CPRF retains its position as the main opposition party and it voted against the pension reform, the resetting of Putin's terms and the extremist law. Thanks to its core voter base, it will be also the main beneficiary of Navalny's smart voting - an initiative urging support for the candidate with highest chance of beating United Russia's nominee in the respective district.

The communist party publicly condemns Navalny, but at lower level sometimes its members cooperate with people from Navalny's structures. A serious scandal emerged from the Election Commission's decision to ban Pavel Grudinin from running in the upcoming elections over alleged ownership in an offshore company. CPRF's leadership stood firmly behind Grudinin, who was put third in the party election list and has actively criticized Putin's regime during his presidential campaign in 2018. The authorities also opened a criminal case against another well-known CPRF member, Nikolay Bandarenko, which can further help it attract protest votes.

Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR)

LDPR is a nationalist party focused on law and order. Despite its name, it is a monarchist party that opposes liberal reforms and favours strong economic interventionism. Since its establishment in 1992 it has been led and firmly controlled by the controversial Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Zhirinovsky continues to speak of restoring Russia's glory and returning its Soviet and imperial territories. The hot-headed LDPR chairman sometimes criticizes United Russia, but has been largely moderate in this regard throughout the election campaign. In our view, he would more easily provide the needed support for the ruling party than the CPRF. LDPR's election programme prioritises fast rural development and encouraging childbirth. It speaks of subordinating the CBR to the Duma and stopping banks from profiting from lending to households. In contrast to CPRF, the LDPR is not challenged much by spoiler parties.

Just Russia - Patriots - For Truth

Just Russia has been the fourth largest political party since its foundation in 2006, when it appeared from the merger of left-wing Motherland and Pensioners' Party and Party of Life. In March this year it merged with left-wing nationalist Patriots and For Truth. The party is in the centre-left political spectrum, calling for a proper-functioning welfare state. Its electoral list is headed by the leaders of the three merged parties - Sergey Mironov (Just Russia), Zakhar Prilepin (For Truth) and Gennady Semmigin (leader of Patriots). The party's election campaign suggests strengthening state's role in the economy, progressive taxation, fighting corruption, hiking the minimum wage, pensions and social benefits.

Russian Party of Pensioners for Social Justice

As its name suggests, the Russian Party of Pensioners for Social Justice caters to the needs of older people. It promises better access to healthcare and containing the increase of medicine and utility prices. The party calls for a radical pension reform based on equality, envisaging significant pension increase and no increase of the retirement age.

New People

New People was established in Mar 2020 by Alexey Nechaev, founder of cosmetics company Faberlic. It caters to the demand for something new by younger people. The party stands for cutting red tape, modernization of political structures, reducing state's role in the economy, while encouraging development and implementation of modern technologies. Tackling environmental and garbage collection issues and animal protection are included in its agenda. New People speaks against state censorship and abolition of the extremist law. Thus, it will be one of the political players seeking to attract protest votes.

Yabloko

Established in 2001, Yabloko is one of the few remaining non-systemic opposition parties. The liberal-democratic party calls for improvement of relations with the West and EU membership. It stands for civil leberties and a social market economy. Unsurprisingly, it saw many of its candidates barred from running at the upcoming elections. The party has actively tried to attract protest votes over the past months. However, we believe this has been largely unsuccessful and many protest voters will back other parties with greater chance to steal mandates from United Russia or simply abstain from voting.

Opinion polls

All polls, including those of independent Levada Centre, show an overwhelming lead for United Russia. However, the result of the party is destined to be lower compared to the 2016 elections, when it won record 343 seats, benefitting from the annexation of Crimea. The surveys also suggest that the 2021 vote will register one of the lowest turnouts in history. The ruling party will face higher competition in single-seat constituencies, especially in bigger cities, but it will still win in most of the districts. The polls suggest the party will get around 40% of the vote, which might be enough for the desired 301 MPs.

CPRF should remain the second biggest parliamentary party and its lead over LDPR will likely increase. The polls currently suggest that Just Russia - Patriots - For Truth will again complete the list of Duma factions. However, New People and the Russian Party of Pensioners for Social Justice have some chances of reaching the 5% threshold with their campaigns gathering speed. Non-systemic opposition parties, such as Yabloko, will remain outside parliament again with support at just around 1% of the votes.

Conclusion

Untied Russia is determined to win the uncontested elections and may reach the publicly announced goal of constitutional majority. To achieve this, it will likely mobilise the state administration and possibly resort to some vote rigging, although to a rather limited extent, in order not to provoke public anger. In our view, the ruling regime wants to avoid a new wave of protests, to which it will likely respond with another violent crackdown, which will in turn further enhance public divisions. Overall, the upcoming elections should bring no major changes in Russia's political landscape and will be used as proof for the regime's legitimacy ahead of the 2024 presidential vote.