Voting is done in Russia’s 2021 parliamentary races, and the results are now clear: United Russia maintained its supermajority, preserving its absolute control over the legislature; the Communist Party (KPRF) performed much better than it did five years ago; and the right-wing Liberal Democrats (LDPR) had one of their worst showings ever. Also, for the first time since Russia introduced party-list proportional representation, there will be a fifth faction: businessman Alexey Nechayev’s New People (a group created with the Kremlin’s help). As the dust settles, the biggest unresolved questions surround electronic voting — specifically, how it affected results in and around Moscow, where online tallies catapulted the candidates endorsed by Mayor Sergey Sobyanin to victories against oppositionists who led in offline counts. Meduza’s Andrey Pertsev examines what a weekend of voting says about the direction of Russia’s legislative politics.
How to read this text: The figures presented below represent the official numbers released by Russia’s Central Election Commission. Please bear in mind that the federal authorities use all instruments at their disposal to ensure the desired election results. These manipulations range from forced voting among public employees to engineered electronic voting.
With the results finalized, the Central Election Commission’s tally showed United Russia with 49.82 percent of all party-list votes, which amounts to 123 seats. In total, five political parties will enjoy proportional representation in the next lower house of parliament. Additionally, United Russia grabbed 199 of the State Duma’s 225 single-mandate seats.
In other words, United Russia’s legislative presence will fall from 343 deputies to 324, though this is still comfortably more than the 300 seats needed for a “constitutional majority,” which allows the party to change the nation’s Constitution without needing a coalition.
Nearly a year ago, Meduza reported that two senior Kremlin officials — State Council presidential administration head Alexander Kharichev and internal policy department director Andrey Yarin — said at a meeting with United Russia members that the party should win another supermajority in September 2021, despite the group’s plummeting approval ratings. When delivering these expectations, Kharichev and Yarin cited the wishes of President Putin, who said repeatedly during Russia’s campaign season that United Russia must maintain its position in the State Duma.
Sergey Kiriyenko, the Putin administration’s first deputy chief of staff and the Kremlin’s domestic policy czar, also specified targets for United Russia, reportedly calling on the party to win at least 45 percent of the elections’ votes, which it later exceeded (according to the official results).
The ruling party’s worst performance was in the Khabarovsk Krai, where the Communists won with more than a quarter of all votes (beating United Russia’s 24 percent). The region was expected to be a problem: Last year, after police arrested Governor Sergey Furgal (a member of LDPR), locals staged unprecedented protests for several months in a row. When President Putin appointed LDPR State Duma deputy Mikhail Degtyarev, an “outsider” to Khabarovsk, to take over as a governor, the decision sparked more demonstrations still. But the movement eventually fizzled out, and Degtyarev was able to win a majority of the votes in last weekend’s gubernatorial contest (57 percent with a turnout of 44 percent, officially).
United Russia also lost to KRPF in the Nenets Autonomous District, Yakutia, Komi, and the Ulyanovsk region, but Meduza’s source in the party and other sources close to the presidential administration say they are “completely satisfied” with the election’s results.
When it came time to celebrate United Russia’s returns, the two officials who headlined for the party on ballots — Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov — didn’t even attend Sunday’s jamboree. Party officials never explained why, and a source later told Interfax that both men plan to forego their seats in the Duma and keep their ministerial positions. The news was no surprise: Months earlier, a source in United Russia told Meduza that neither Shoigu nor Lavrov ever intended to join the legislature.
Putin himself remains in self-isolation after “several dozen people” in his entourage apparently tested positive for COVID-19. Ex-President and former Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who is still United Russia’s chairman, was absent on Sunday, as well. “He’s sick with a bad cough. He couldn’t be here with us today, but he asked that I convey his enormous gratitude to you,” Andrey Turchak, a top party official, explained.
A source close to United Russia’s leadership told Meduza that Medvedev will likely lose his role as the party’s chairman at the next convention. “They gradually ousted him from campaigning, he didn’t make it to the top of the party’s [ballot] list, he wasn’t involved in voter outreach, and he didn’t even attend the party’s last meeting with the president before elections,” says Meduza’s source.
With all these absences, both medical and unexplained, the most prominent figures who actually showed up at United Russia’s celebration were Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin (who led the party’s Moscow list), Kommunarka hospital chief physician Denis Protsenko (third place on the party’s federal list), and Andrey Turchak, the secretary of the party’s General Council.
KPRF, LDPR, and Just Russia
The Communist Party had its best performance at the polls in a decade, winning nine single-mandate races and almost 19 percent of the party-list votes (one and a half times more than in 2016). This gives KPRF 57 deputies in the new State Duma — up from the 42 seats the party won five years ago (when it had five deputies directly elected and won 13.3 percent of the party-list vote). The Communists haven’t done so well since 2011, when the party grabbed 19.2 percent of the vote (back when proportional representation determined all the Duma’s seats).
A source close to the presidential administration admitted to Meduza that opinion polling put KPRF’s approval rating with likely voters about six percentage points higher than the party ultimately drew in the elections (according to the final tally). “Its ratings started growing after [federal officials] removed Pavel Grudinin from the elections, and then it kept growing until the end of campaigning,” explained Meduza’s source, referring to KPRF’s 2018 presidential candidate. This year, the Communists originally put Grudinin third on their federal party list — then Russia’s Central Election Commission disqualified him for supposedly owning foreign assets.
Besides Grudinin (who campaigned for president three years ago, a little too charismatically it so happens), more than a few colorful politicians belong to the Communist Party: Former Irkutsk Senator Viktor Markhaev criticized Moscow’s police response to opposition protests in 2019 and voted against the constitutional amendments that could extend Vladimir Putin’s presidency for another two terms; Sergey Levchenko became the first elected governor from KPRF after Putin reinstated direct gubernatorial elections in 2012; and Valery Rashkin, the popular head of KPRF’s city committee in Moscow, will keep his seat in the State Duma.
The Communist Party boasts several rising stars, as well, like Oleg Mikhailov, KPRF’s young and outspoken leader in the Komi Republic who will now join the State Duma after winning the region’s single-mandate race, and popular blogger Nikolai Bondarenko, who might have won a single-mandate seat in Saratov had United Russia not nominated Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin in the same contest. KPRF ultimately moved Bondarenko to another race in one of Saratov’s more rural districts. “You could say they came to an understanding. Bondarenko is well known among oppositionists around the country and he’s especially well known in Saratov, but elections in a rural district ain’t the Internet,” a source close to United Russia told Meduza.
A nightmare weekend at the polls left LDPR with almost half as much support as it had five years ago, down to 7.5 percent from 13.1 percent in 2016. This was the party’s worst showing since the mid-1990s. Just Russia, meanwhile, performed roughly the same as it did in the last elections, rising slightly from 7 percent to 7.5 percent. In single-mandate districts, LDPR won just one race. Just Russia grabbed eight seats in these contests. In the next Duma, LDPR’s presence will plummet almost by half, falling from 39 deputies to only 21. Just Russia, on the other hand, added four seats to reach 27.
A source close to the presidential administration told Meduza that ballot counts in Russia’s Far East revealed early on that both Just Russia and LDPR risked falling short of the State Duma’s five-percent threshold, which would have left the two parties without any proportional representation in the legislature. “The usual partners [in the Kremlin] had to help out a bit,” says Meduza’s source, referring to either blatant election fraud or the mobilization of voters using the state’s “administrative resources.”
An unpublished poll conducted a few days before the elections (Meduza obtained a copy of this survey) confirmed that LDPR and Just Russia could expect problems with voters and possibly fail to reach the five-percent threshold. “It happened because of the new parties: the Pensioners’ Party had clearer positions, more colorful campaigning, and went after Just Russia’s electorate. The Communists and even the New People took votes away from LDPR,” explained Meduza’s source close to the presidential administration.
The New People Party
Before 2005, electoral blocs made up of multiple parties or social movements could compete for seats in the State Duma. But since 2007, after Russia converted its parliamentary elections to full party-list voting (before revising the process again in 2016 to a mix of proportional representation and single-mandate constituencies), the State Duma has only ever had four party factions at one time.
In Russia’s latest parliamentary elections, a fifth group finally made the cut: Alexey Nechayev’s New People. Apart from KPRF’s impressive gains, the New People’s success is perhaps the elections’ biggest “sensation” (though both outcomes were expected). With the Kremlin’s obvious assistance, Nechayev built a political force that collected nearly 3 million votes.
The New People officially won 5.3 percent of Russia’s party-list votes, which gives them 13 seats in the next State Duma. As recently as July, polling indicated that the party lacked enough support to break the representation threshold, but the group’s popularity soon began rising. Last year, the New People crossed the five-percent barrier in legislative elections across four different regions. At the time, sources in the party attributed their success to energetic campaigning and efficiently mobilizing so-called “nets” of voters motivated by either material rewards or the endorsements of local public figures (whom the New People recruited with lobbying promises).
“We bet on television: there were positive segments about the party [on TV] and also stories about the New People in Komsomolskaya Pravda. First, we worked to build recognition, and then we focused on mobilizing the protest voter with campaign messages saying that we were going to make it, that we were taking votes away from United Russia, and that people could vote for us,” a source in the New People told Meduza.
The same individual denies that the Kremlin or any regional officials helped lift the New People across the State Duma’s representation threshold: “In some regions they interfered, and in some they didn’t. The Kremlin didn’t interfere,” the source says. Another person in the party admitted to Meduza that the local authorities in some regions “helped” the New People, though the source insists that the party saw good returns broadly, even where it had no active presence on the ground.
Russia’s other smaller political parties failed to qualify for any representation in the State Duma. Yabloko, once the darling of the liberal opposition, won a miserable 1.3 percent of the party-list votes. During his abysmal campaign, long-time Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky actively discouraged votes from Alexey Navalny’s supporters.
The capacity of Alexey Navalny’s strategic voting initiative to influence results loomed as one of the election’s biggest unknowns. With the counting done, clarity about Smart Vote remains elusive, but the official election results are not encouraging. The project endorsed oppositionists in all 225 single-mandate districts and only 14 of these candidates won.
Four of these winners reportedly coordinated their victories with the Kremlin and regional officials: Mikhail Shchapov (KPRF in Irkutsk), Sergey Leonov (LDPR in Smolensk), Alexey Didenko (LDPR in Tomsk), and Oleg Smolin (KPRF in Omsk).
Seven of the 10 single-mandate victors who had no arrangements with the presidential administration were from the Communist Party: Maria Prusakova (Altai Krai), Nikolai Kuzmin (Leningrad region), Mikhail Rayn (the Nenets Autonomous Okrug), Andrey Alekhin (Omsk), Oleg Mikhailov (Komi), Sergey Kazankov (Mari El), and Mikhail Matveev (Samara). The remaining three winners are Just Russia members: Elena Drapeko (St. Petersburg) and Anatoly Greshnevikov and Anatoly Lisitsyn (both Yaroslavl).
It’s hard to say how big a role Smart Vote played in these victories. In Yakutia, Yakutiafor example, Navalny’s team endorsed the incumbent, Just Russia’s Fedot Tumusov (who reportedly enjoyed the authorities’ support), while United Russia nominated a challenger with no political experience. In the end, however, voters elected KPRF’s Petr Ammosov.
In several districts, Smart Vote clearly backed the wrong candidates. (Leonid Volkov, one of the project’s chief architects, acknowledged before the elections that this might happen.) In Novosibirsk, for instance, Smart Vote endorsed political strategist Igor Ukraintsev (nominated by the Greens) who finished third. It was Communist candidate Andrey Zhirnov who lost narrowly to United Russia’s Oleg Ivaninsky. In Ryazan, meanwhile, Team Navalny told supporters to vote for Alexander Sherin from LDPR, but KPRF candidate Evgeny Morozov came closest to beating United Russia’s nominee, Dmitry Khubezov.
Political scientist Alexander Kynev assessed Smart Vote’s impact outside major cities as “minimal.” Before electronic votes were added to the election results in Moscow, however, multiple candidates bearing Smart Vote’s endorsement led in-person voting. This includes Communists Mikhail Lobanov, Valery Rashkin, Sergei Obukhov, and Anastasia Udaltsova, independent Anastasia Bryukhanova, and Yabloko’s Sergei Mitrokhin. Every one of these people lost their lead when online votes were added into the mix. Arguing that anomalies mar Moscow’s electronic results, some politicians are now demanding the annulment of these votes.
The Communists have refused to recognize the capital’s electronic vote tally and the party’s local leaders have threatened to protest the results, though city officials promptly refused to issue a permit for any large demonstrations, citing continued public safety concerns during the coronavirus pandemic.
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Translation by Kevin Rothrock