Watch Closely: Russia’s Dodgy Duma Election (Part 1)

Image:  pedestrian walks past a board informing of the upcoming Russian parliamentary elections in a street in the rebel-held city of Donetsk, Ukraine September 9, 2021. A board promotes to take part in the election by voting at polling stations in Russia's Rostov Region and reads: "Russia is our choice". Credit: REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko/File Photo
Image: pedestrian walks past a board informing of the upcoming Russian parliamentary elections in a street in the rebel-held city of Donetsk, Ukraine September 9, 2021. A board promotes to take part in the election by voting at polling stations in Russia's Rostov Region and reads: "Russia is our choice". Credit: REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko/File Photo

The Duma’s single-member districts are critical to Putin’s party and there are growing signs of anxiety in the Kremlin.

Russians head to the polls from Friday to Sunday (September 17-19) to vote in critical legislative elections. The vote will determine what the Duma will look like in 2024 when Vladimir Putin’s fourth presidential term ends, and he either changes profession or stays on as president. The election will be as unfree as the stakes are high.

Recent years have seen increasingly widespread falsification of elections across Russia, especially since the introduction of multi-day voting and online voting, which has reportedly led to forced voter registration and fraud that is mostly hidden from the eyes of independent observers (whom the authorities are trying to restrict in many other ways too.) In recent weeks, stories about the authorities preparing mass falsification have emerged across the country, from St. Petersburg and Moscow to the Republic of Khakassia.

But this is not just one election: half the Duma is elected in single-mandate districts (SMDs) in a majoritarian, first-past-the-post system where a plurality of votes is enough to win a seat. In 2016, Putin’s United Russia party won 203 of 225 these seats — more than 90% — with only around half of the total vote nationally. In more than half of single-member districts, the governing party won with less than 50% of the vote; in fact, in some Moscow and St. Petersburg districts, United Russia won a mandate with barely more than 25%.

In most of the districts where the party did not win, it did not even field a candidate; essentially gifting these seats to a candidate from the so-called “systemic” opposition parties, Potemkin organizations designed to give the appearance of opposing the government. The fact that there are significantly fewer districts this year where United Russia will allow a free run to others betrays the anxiety of the authorities about guaranteeing the party a constitutional supermajority (300 or more of 450 seats) without engaging in electoral falsification so widespread and blatant as to trigger a response on the streets.

Techniques in single-mandate districts, ranging from spoiler candidates — often with names or even faces similar or identical to a genuine opposition candidate — to targeted disqualification and negative PR, which are a notch-less illegal than outright falsification, are key to this endeavor. Unless the tame systemic opposition parties cooperate to unseat incumbents, Alexey Navalny’s “Smart Voting”, a campaign urging voters to coordinate and vote for the strongest non-United Russia candidate in each district, is probably the best way to upset the authorities’ calculations and – as Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s chief of staff pointed out in an interview with Meduza – to force them to renegotiate or cancel the myriad little deals that divvy up local resources and allow United Russia to run the country with the acquiescence of local elites. These renegotiations would be inconvenient for the Kremlin, even if tame systemic candidates end up winning the districts.

No wonder recent weeks have seen attempts to convince those who might be interested in Smart Voting to abstain, from bots spreading the message under one of the feeds of Team Navalny, to a fake newsletter sent out in the name of The Bell, a news site. The authorities have also attacked the online and offline infrastructure of the initiative, going so far as to pick a fight with Google to get the tech giant to remove links to Smart Voting from its search results.

Of course, expecting Smart Voting to produce a quiet revolution in all or most single-member districts would also be a mistake. According to a new study of Smart Voting in the 2020 regional elections by Mikhail Turchenko and Grigory Golosov, the technique had a minimum net positive effect of more than 5 percentage points on the results of selected candidates in cities, and more than 7 percentage points in St. Petersburg in 2019. It is fair to assume that in a legislative election the stakes, and thus the participation, are going to be higher. But in 2016 there were only 11 districts where according to the – official – result, the difference between the winning United Russia candidate and the second-placed candidate was within 10 points: in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and in the Novosibirsk, Omsk, Chelyabinsk, and Astrakhan regions, in Khakassia and in the occupied Sevastopol.

In addition, United Russia can count on its own bastions, including the so-called “electoral sultanates” (republics in the North Caucasus, the Volga region, and Siberia that consistently produce very high turnout and high vote share for the ruling party, generally through questionable means). It also has “administrative means” and spoiler candidates on its side. Various estimates have put the maximum number of single-member districts that the ruling party may lose somewhere between 27 and 50. And even in this case, the ruling party may very well preserve its supermajority.

But SMDs are important in and of themselves. They signal important shifts in voters’ mood as well as potential crisis points and policy failures. Even beyond the question of where Smart Voting works, they may highlight what kind of candidates and movements can harness the energy of the “fed-up” after the evisceration of Navalny’s movement, and what paths there are (if any) for systemic liberals and opposition-minded communists.

September 16, 2021