September’s legislative election in Russia is extremely awkward for the Kremlin. Its two goals —legitimizing the political system and ensuring a solid parliamentary majority for the last years of Vladimir Putin’s fourth term – may be at odds. This is what makes Alexei Navalny and his organization uniquely dangerous for the Kremlin.

Notwithstanding the increasingly harsh authoritarian nature of political power in Russia, elections have always had, and still have, particular importance for the system that Vladimir Putin created. They provide legitimacy by showcasing the incumbent’s popular support — or his power to have others carry out his will – and they produce legislatures that pass the right kind of laws, control key appointments, and so on. September’s Duma election is especially important because it will produce the parliament that will be in power in 2024 when Putin’s fourth presidential term ends. The composition of the next Duma will be of key importance for his future, unless one believes (and I do not) that Putin’s fifth and sixth terms are a done deal.

This year’s Duma election is especially important for another reason. The past years have seen a steady erosion in the popular legitimacy of Putin’s system in its present form, triggered, inter alia, by years of falling or stagnating real incomes, broken promises, and increasingly vigorous politics in the regions. This in turn was prompted by mismanagement, a political and fiscal centralization that eviscerated the institutions of representative democracy, and the dogged organizing work of civil activists, including Alexei Navalny’s team. In 2018, this led to surprising electoral upsets of the ruling United Russia party in several regions. In 2021, with United Russia’s electoral rating hovering slightly above 40%, it may result in the ruling party losing the all-important constitutional supermajority that it currently possesses.

Of course, the Kremlin has a well-stocked toolbox to ensure that this does not happen. Aside from outright rigging and falsification, of which there is ample evidence, the Kremlin has for the past decade relied on two additional elements in legislative elections: demotivation of the opposition electorate and constant tinkering with the electoral law. Legislative elections are not like presidential elections where, due to the referendum-like nature of the vote, the Kremlin needs enthusiastic support and a high turnout; if most disgruntled voters stay home while United Russia can mobilize its voters with administrative means or by motivating them, most of the job is done.

Changing candidate registration rules, how voting takes place and how votes translate to seats helps United Russia minimize risks. This year’s biggest novelty will be multi-day voting, introduced in 2020 due to the pandemic, which handily coincided with restrictions on the activities of election observers and allowed large-scale rigging. But the most important component of United Russia’s supermajority are the single-member districts introduced before the 2016 election and make up half of Duma seats. United Russia won 203 of 225 of these, thanks to the first-past-the-post system, which rewards incumbents facing a divided opposition. With a vote share around 50%, the ruling party took 90% of these seats. Even if it only takes 40% of the vote, United Russia may very well repeat this feat in September, as long as the opposition vote is divided or demobilized.

This is why Alexei Navalny’s “smart voting” initiative (a tactical voting approach familiar even in long-established democracies like the UK, which has a similar winner-takes-all system), encouraging disgruntled voters to turn out and rally behind one specific non-incumbent, even if they are the candidate of a “systemic” opposition party, is so dangerous for the Kremlin. Its test runs in regional and municipal elections in 2019 and 2020 resulted in unexpected successes in Moscow, Tomsk, and Novosibirsk (and in September, together with the Duma elections, almost half of Russia’s regions will hold lower-level votes). What is more, some of these elections prompted systemic candidates to think of themselves as a real opposition, such as communist deputies in Moscow who were the main beneficiaries of smart voting in 2019, as well as Sergey Furgal, the former — now jailed — governor of Khabarovsk who was elected in 2018 in what was de facto the first example of smart voting, even before Navalny popularized the term and turned it into a well-organized and powerful political weapon.

Smart voting is dangerous for the Kremlin because it is very difficult to fight. Unless elections are scrapped entirely — which would turn Russia into a naked dictatorship — there will always be at least two candidates; the system requires voters, not parties, to coalesce; most importantly, it forces the authorities to commit more rigging if they want to grant United Russia a supermajority, but simultaneously makes rigging riskier.

Even if elections are reduced to a ritual in an electoral autocracy, one of their main functions — providing legitimacy — works only as long as the result is something that a critical mass of people can live with. The task of the Kremlin’s political technologists is thus not only to ensure that United Russia has a large enough majority, but simultaneously to manage the election so that this victory seems sufficiently legitimate for a sufficiently large number of people – otherwise the vote may turn into the kind of “Big Injustice” that brings people to the street, as it happened in Belarus. The likely alternative — a more complex and pluralistic Duma — would likely create unbearable risks for the Kremlin in the coming years as it is trying to keep the system stable.

The Kremlin is well aware of these risks and is more cautious than Alexander Lukashenko: this is why we have seen the government carefully balancing crude intimidation, repression, and positive incentives in the past months, relying on the assumption that most voters would find the leap from disgruntlement to activism uncomfortable, and that the international community has more important things to worry about. When push comes to shove, of course, sticks are likely to trump carrots, as the repeated attempts on Navalny’s life and the ongoing criminalization of his organization show. Especially if the price paid is lower than the expected gain.


Photo: The President of Russia delivered the Address to the Federal Assembly. April 21, 2021. Credit: Kremlin

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Andras Toth-Czifra

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April 23, 2021

Europe’s Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.