Europe Politics

Russia's authoritarianism and political crackdown could get worse after weekend vote, experts say

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Key Points
  • Russia will be holding elections to the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, this coming weekend.
  • Experts expect the vote to maintain and even increase President Putin and the Kremlin.
  • It's expected that the ruling United Russia party will have a "convincing victory" in the vote that takes place between September 17-19.
A bus drives past a United Russia campaign poster put up ahead of the elections to the Russian State Duma of the 8th convocation scheduled for September 17-19.
Vladimir Smirnov | TASS | Getty Images

Russia will hold elections to the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, from Friday and experts expect the vote to consolidate President Vladimir Putin's power base in the Kremlin.

It's widely expected that the ruling United Russia party will secure a "convincing victory" in the vote that takes place between September 17-19, with one analyst noting that the election "heralds more authoritarianism" as a result.

"The Kremlin's objective is to retain a constitutional majority, ensure the vote's legitimacy, and avoid large-scale post-election protests. Major changes in the cabinet or the government's policy direction are unlikely after the vote," Andrius Tursa, Central and Eastern Europe advisor at Teneo Intelligence, said in a note ahead of the vote.

Around 108 million voters in Russia have a right to elect 450 members of the State Duma for a five-year term. Voting this year is taking place over a three-day period due to the Covid-19 pandemic. United Russia has been the dominant party in the country for decades and it enthusiastically supports Putin although he has run as an independent candidate since 2018.

Adeline Van Houtte, Europe analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, noted Wednesday that the vote will be an important test for United Russia given insufficient financial support for businesses and households, together with a weakening labour market that has dented the party's popularity in recent years.

"United Russia is now polling at around 30%, substantially lower than in 2016. Despite its poor ratings, it maintains a comfortable lead over its biggest competitors. We expect United Russia and other pro-Kremlin affiliates to retain a large majority in the Duma."

Crackdown on opponents

Analysts expect there to be little transparency when it comes to electoral standards given increasingly limited press freedom and efforts to suppress and neutralize political opposition in Russia — most notably, the imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his supporters.

Van Houtte said a major crackdown on real and perceived opponents is intensifying ahead of the parliamentary election "and is likely to continue afterwards."

Despite imprisoning Navalny earlier this year, Russia's authorities have continued the dismantling of the activist's opposition movement and support base.

In June, three political associations linked to Navalny were outlawed and branded as "extremist", meaning that any member of the organizations or supporters of Navalny can face prison terms and be barred from running for public office.

"Considering the limited presence of international observers and a sweeping crackdown on the opposition, independent media, and civic organizations during the past year, the upcoming election will be the least transparent and competitive during President Vladimir Putin's 20+ years in power," Tursa said, adding that United Russia was still set to secure an absolute majority of seats and could retain a constitutional majority in the lower chamber despite a recent decline in popularity.

Token opposition

Russia analysts say the election has the appearance of a democratic vote but that, in reality, it is closely controlled by the state and other parties on the ballot paper are token opposition parties approved by the Kremlin.

"So-called systemic opposition parties" are currently represented in the State Duma, Tursa noted, citing the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and a Just Russia-For Truth as well as a new party called New People, which is targeting disappointed urban voters. These parties don't represent "genuine opposition," he said.

"As a result, the Duma will remain strongly supportive of the Kremlin," Tursa noted.

For the Kremlin, Tursa said there were three objectives. Primarily, "to reaffirm United Russia's undisputed control of the State Duma by maintaining a constitutional majority, which holds practical and symbolic significance ahead of the 2024 presidential election."

Secondly, the Kremlin wants "to maintain legitimacy among political elites and the wider electorate by ensuring good turnout, a credible outcome of the vote, and limited reports of any electoral irregularities"

And thirdly, it wants to avoid widespread protests such as those seen after the 2011 legislative election or in neighboring Belarus last year, Tursa said.

What about the economy?

Major changes in the cabinet or the government's policy direction seem unlikely given that the ruling party's program continues long-standing key policy areas such as the well-being of families, infrastructure development of Russia's regions and the protection of the country's interests abroad, Tursa said.

Liam Peach, emerging markets economist at Capital Economics, agrees that United Russia will hold onto its majority but noted that the "political backdrop is fragile" and the government could soon intervene more in the economy.

"Public support for United Russia has dropped sharply over the past five years and President Putin's approval rating is hovering near record lows. The stagnation in real incomes since 2013 may have a played a part in this," he said in a note Wednesday.

"A key implication of this tension is that the government has taken an increasingly interventionist approach in the economy in an effort to support households. One strand to this is social welfare provision, which has become a key priority for the government. Cash payments to families, children, pensioners and military personnel have been announced ahead of September's elections."

Peach said his team believed the emphasis on social support will become permanent in Russia.

"This shift towards higher social spending has its roots before the pandemic and was presented alongside President Putin's plans to amend the constitution. With the depths of the crisis having passed and a rebound in oil prices boosting the public finances, it seems that the government has started to rekindle these plans and bring issues around the standard of living higher up its agenda."