Parliamentary Elections and Politics in Russia

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On September 17-19, Russian citizens cast their votes in the parliamentary elections. During the 13th session of the Democratic Resilience in Europe during a Pandemic discussion series organized by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), an esteemed panel of experts discussed Putin’s Russia, the future of Russian politics, the responsibility of the international community and what the outcomes of the election indicated.

The event gathered 101 participants from 36 countries and featured simultaneous interpretation into Albanian, Armenian, Georgian, Macedonian, Russian, South Slavic language and Ukrainian. The webinar was facilitated by IFES Senior Political Finance Adviser and Regional Europe Office Director Magnus Öhman.

IFES Program and Research Advisor for Europe and Eurasia, Anthony Bowyer, discussed the results of the elections in which the ruling United Russia party won 324 out of the 450 seats in the Duma (with an official 52 percent turnout). Although this was down 19 seats from the previous Duma, United Russia retained a super-majority which will allow them to push additional amendments through to the constitution. True opposition parties, like Yabloko, did not prevail, while parties like the Communist Party and A Just Russia gained more popularity. The “Smart Voting” app by opposition figure Alex Navalny was banned the day before the voting period began, as a result of pressure exerted by the Russian government on Google and Apple, on the grounds that they were assisting a banned “extremist” group, Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. Although the elections saw decreasing popularity of United Russia, the election results are likely to enable continuity of the domestic and international policies of President Putin.

Katerina Tertytchnaya, Assistant Professor in Comparative Politics in the Department of Political Science at University College London, spoke about an increase in repression from early 2021 onwards, including arrests of opposition activities, media outlets and non-governmental organizations listed as foreign agents and broader crackdowns making candidates ineligible to compete. Tertytchnaya agreed with Bowyer that the “Smart Voting” initiative was important because it postulated to provide opposition-minded Russians with a reason to vote. While the app was ultimately removed, it demonstrated the potential for opposition coordination and raised questions about the role of tech companies. Tertytchnaya noted that there were allegations of widespread electoral fraud, including ballot-box stuffing and threats against observers.

Roman Udot, co-chairman of the Board at Golos, spoke about restriction of passive electoral rights, manipulations of legislation ahead of the elections and the pressure on journalists and observers, amongst other things. At the time of IFES discussion, Golos had tracked 4,500 reports of election and voting violations. Udot noted that these elections are extremely difficult to observe for several reasons, including numerous cases of illegal substitution of cast ballots and trouble finding volunteers to be on the Precinct Electoral Commissions (PECs). Udot also spoke about e-voting in Moscow and how it seemingly changed the outcome of Duma elections in majoritarian districts. Ahead of the election, the government aired plans to implement e-voting for up to 80 percent of voters. Though some Russians are upset, repressive laws and fear of punishment have kept the dissent at bay.

Stefanie Schiffer, Executive Director at the European Exchange, discussed a lack of competitiveness and a lack of transparency, which she believed to be the main shortcomings of the Duma elections. She emphasized the importance of election observers, but explained that the use of citizen election observers was restricted after a 2014 ruling stating that “foreign agents” may not participate in elections. This law impacts independent Russian organizations and many members of independent media. In the 2021 parliamentary elections, Schiffer noted that international politicians were invited as experts without accreditation as observers, demonstrating how the Kremlin is adapting its strategy to the changing environment.

Published on October 22, 2021.

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