In roughly a month, on September 17, three-day parliamentary elections will begin in Russia. Using party lists, opinion polls, and turnout estimates in each region across the country, it’s relatively easy to predict the results. As ever, the biggest changes are taking place inside United Russia, the nation’s ruling political party. What’s the logic behind such changes, and whom should we expect to see in the new legislature? Political scientist Alexander Kynev explains.
The text first appeared in Russian on August 6, 2021.
What we know for sure about the new Duma
Russia’s voting system underwent a complete overhaul five years ago, just before the last State Duma elections, going from complete proportional representation (with all members elected from party lists) to a hybrid system where 225 seats are based on party lists and the remaining 225 go to single-seat constituencies.
As in 2016, this year’s ballots will probably list 14 parties. Of these, the parties that pass the five-percent electoral threshold will win mandates. Four parties are likely to break the threshold: United Russia, the Communist Party (KPRF), the Liberal Democrats (LDPR), and A Just Russia (which has recently merged with two smaller parties: For Truth and Patriots of Russia).
Once the votes are cast, mandates are first allocated to candidates from the federal part of the party lists. LDPR currently has the greatest number of candidates in the federal part of its list: 15 out of a possible 15. The Communists have 14, following the removal of Pavel Grudinin. United Russia has five, A Just Russia – four, the New People party – two, and Yabloko has just one candidate.
In addition to a federal list, each party submits regional lists. Once a party has passed the five-percent threshold, seats are allocated among those lists on the basis of the actual number of votes (as opposed to percentages) that the party received in each region. In other words, the more people vote for a particular party in a region, the more representatives that region will have in the Duma.
We can predict who will take which seats by looking at previous election results together with the likely turnout in each region and the likely spread of votes for each party. Now that the party lists are out, we can name a substantial number of candidates who are definitely getting a mandate. There is just a small zone of uncertainty on each party list where candidates’ fate remains a mystery.
Single-seat constituencies are taken by candidates who gain the highest number of votes in their region, regardless of how many more votes they got compared with the next best candidate — it can be a matter of one vote. In 2016, United Russia took 203 out of 225 single-seat constituencies. United Russia will undoubtedly dominate here again in 2021, probably winning between 180 and 200 “single mandates.”
A significant proportion of the current Duma members are, of course, set to stay in place, particularly those who are active legislators. These lawmakers include, for example, Deputy Speaker Alexander Zhukov, head of the budget committee Andrey Makarov (who has held the post for many years), and chairman of the committee for state-building and lawmaking Pavel Krasheninnikov. These individuals can rely on either a secure party-list spot or a safe constituency.
That said, variety is the spice of life, and while the very core of power is stable, its actions and character do change from time to time. It is those changes that influence our attitude towards power, as well as its future trajectory.
It is worth noting that United Russia is the only party to undergo changes of any real substance; others win so few votes that their key deputies tend to hold on to their seats.
Out with the old
Before we can gauge the direction of change, we need to look at the Duma’s previous incarnations. Starting in 2016, following electoral reforms, parties had to rely a lot more on support at a local level, and candidates needed to be able to win over local voters.
The 2007 and 2011 State Duma elections were held exclusively via party lists. The lists were drawn and approved in Moscow in a way that was arbitrary and had no regard for Russia’s other regions. Those who joined the State Duma did so by arrangement with federal party bureaucrats or those close to them. This explains why the Duma elected in those two sessions was so full of oddball characters, who rather reflected the taste and style of the regime at that point in time.
First, the party lists were full of outsiders who had no connection to the regions in which they stood to be elected and whose election only served to provoke tensions with the central government.
Second, the central government’s style and preferences were changing. United Russia’s 2007 lists saw the active participation of the Nashi pro-Kremlin youth movement, while in 2011 it was the Young Guard of United Russia as well as activists from the All-Russia People’s Front (the likes of metalworker Valery Trapeznikov) and sports personalities (ahead of hosting the Olympics).
Meanwhile, systemic opposition party lists prominently featured candidates from big regional businesses (construction firms, retail chains, and banks of regional importance). They were not welcome in the “party of power” for various reasons, not least their protest sentiment.
For official registration, single-member constituency candidates depend on their local electoral commission, which the Putin administration effectively controls. In 2007 and 2011, candidates worked to persuade parties to add them to their lists (sometimes even resorting to cash incentives). In 2016, however, the tables turned and parties themselves were forced to seek out electable candidates in specific districts.
As a result, the Duma’s composition became much more influenced by regional power brokers (with local lobbying power), regional elites as a whole, and voters themselves. As the number of seats electable via party lists decreased, competition between candidates became fierce. And the price of an “entry ticket” skyrocketed.
The Duma elected in 2016 thus comprised three times fewer “random characters” that the party of power would have previously put forward for tokenistic or symbolic reasons. Take the “pensioners” and “wage workers” elected in previous years, having been put forward by the All-Russia People’s Front to demonstrate “social diversity.” No one had ever heard of these candidates before, and they did not actually represent any organized social group whatsoever. The new rules introduced in 2016 left little scope for such experiments, as competition became cut-throat.
But some of the changes in group numbers were too radical to be attributed to electoral reforms alone. For example, there was an enormous rise in the number of former municipal government officials, a noticeable fall in business owners, a doubling of candidates from the media and sports, and an ever-increasing share of state-employed candidates. New political spin and legal forces caused these changes.
The long and short of it is that the 2016 elections relied on low turnout (the date was deliberately moved to the third Sunday of September). The authorities selected candidates from the walks of life that usually appeal to voters even without much “special effort” (without vote tampering and so on). That pool included candidates working in education and health, municipal politicians, and celebrities.
A reduction in “business presence.” There is always an abundance of heavyweight regional entrepreneurs with political ambitions, and many of them would probably prefer to rely directly on voters’ choice rather than on the bureaucrats who compile party lists. Starting in 2012, however, restrictions were imposed deliberately targeting businesspeople as candidates. After May 2012, you could no longer stand for election if you had a previous felony conviction and a prison sentence (financial crimes included). A year later, lawmakers added a new rule, forcing candidates to close foreign bank accounts, withdraw any money or valuables from foreign banks, and dispose of any foreign shares. This had to be done before registration could take place rather than before a successful candidate took office. Operating a large-scale business in Russia is inconceivable without foreign bank accounts. State propaganda labeled these restrictions the “nationalization” of the elites. In reality, it acted as a barrier for independent candidates with their own resources who were capable of success without relying on administrative leverage or the approval of political barons. The socio-economic crisis that was triggered in 2014 made matters even more difficult for business figures who could otherwise have stood for election with no substantial harm to their business. A marked increase in public-sector employees. Two factors were behind this. First, both the federal and regional governments, as ever, wanted to have a dependable set of deputies they could control, and having candidates who take their pay from the state budget is a sure-fire way to achieve this. The second factor was the effort to secure a low turnout, including by moving the election date to the third Sunday of September. The hope here was that the voters who did turn up would be the conformist, state-dependent type. The candidates that were put forward were those who were most likely to mobilize such voters. Hence the lists filling up with university chancellors, school headmasters, highly regarded doctors, and pension managers. An increase in candidates from the media and sports, plus some cosmonauts. This can be explained by a deficit of widely promoted and truly electable candidates — a deficit that became even more pronounced when independent business was discouraged from getting involved in politics. Hence the need to look for candidates who were well known purely by virtue of their profession. The emergence of a “municipal faction.” This, too, was caused by a lack of well-publicized politicians able to win in single-seat constituencies. The heads of local administrations have both recognition and pre-existing support from various groups. A governor may not necessarily wish to see a former mayor gain a seat in parliament but sometimes that is the only viable candidate guaranteed to be elected in that particular single-seat district. There are other reasons behind the growth of a “municipal” group of deputies, too. Often, the election of a former mayor was part of an intra-elite exchange: governors gained the right to appoint mayors (instead of them being voted in by their constituents), and in exchange they arranged for previously elected mayors to be transferred to Moscow. Because of this system of exchange (as well as a lack of well-promoted candidates), the Duma filled up with speakers from regional assemblies.
In with the new
Unlike in 2016, when party lists hinged on a certain common philosophy (to secure candidates bound to be voted in on a low turnout), no single electoral strategy seems to govern lists in 2021. Rather, they appear to be some public officials’ attempts to score points with others and gratify their whimsical tastes.
On the one hand, the lists are still full of candidates left over from 2016, which can be interpreted as fears of changing and pushing the system in a certain direction, and the realization that “well, someone has to do the work.” On the other hand, some of the notable categories of candidates from 2016 that represented real interest groups have eroded.
The most affected group is the “municipal faction”: many of the former mayors who had become deputies have either not made it onto party lists this year or now find themselves in clearly unwinnable districts. United Russia has reduced this resource to virtually nothing: In 2016, many of Russia’s remaining elected mayors became deputies, and their appointed (not elected) successors lack their predecessors’ clout, so turnover is high. You’d be hard-pressed to find a mayor these days who has been in office for more than two years, and mayors no longer bring many votes to their parties, as a result.
Cosmonauts are slowly on their way out, too, but the same cannot be said for TV news anchors, who are still keen to run for office. This year, Timofei Bazhenov from the channel NTV and Evgeny Popov from Rossiya-1 are standing for election in Moscow. The cohort of media personalities also includes former U.S. convict (now Civic Chamber member) Maria Butina.
The Duma will also keep its professional athletes (hockey players Vyacheslav Fetisov and Vladislav Tretiak, figure skater Irina Rodnina, and biathletes Anton Shipulin and Sergey Chepikov), who will be joined by two newcomers: the skiers Elena Vyalbe and Lyubov Yegorova.
Among public sector candidates, there has been a sharp increase in doctors from a range of disciplines. Given the ongoing pandemic, bureaucrats must think that Russians will automatically vote for doctors (though it should be noted that many of the nominated healthcare professionals have nothing to do with fighting COVID-19).
Aside from the head of Moscow’s main coronavirus hospital, Denis Protsenko (who may or may not accept his seat, if elected), there’s every chance that the following doctors will get into the Duma:
Chief physician of Moscow Hospital No. 52, Maryana Lysenko;Chief physician of Irkutsk Regional State Children’s Hospital, Yuri Kozlov;Deputy chief physician for gynecology at Kuzbass Hospital, Veronica Vlasova;Head of Chelyabinsk War Veterans Hospital, Tatyana Vasilenko;Chief physician of the Voronezh Clinical Center for the Prevention and Control of AIDS, Irina Tulinova;Chief physician of the Bryansk City Outpatient Clinic No. 1, Irina Agafonova;Head of cardiology at Orenburg Hospital No. 2, Svetlana Bykova;Chief physician at Balashikhinsky Maternity Hospital, Natalya Alimova;Chief physician at Rostov Children’s Hospital, Svetlana Piskunova;Chief physician at GMC Hospital, Badma Bashankaev (Kalmykia);Deputy health minister of the Republic of Tyva, Aydyn Saryglar;Chief physician at Chelyabinsk Children’s Outpatient Clinic No. 8, Anton Ryzhiy;Chief physician of the Novosibirsk Oncology Center and member of the legislative assembly for the Novosibirsk region, Oleg Ivaninsky;Chief physician at the Reshma Healthcare Center, Mikhail Kizeev from Ivanov region.
The CEO of the Stolichki pharmacy chain, Oleg Nifantyev, also vaguely falls within this medical category. He is running in Moscow’s Orekhovo-Borisov district No. 203.
The president of the Federal Research Center of Pediatric Hematology, Oncology, and Immunology, Alexander Rumyantsev, is running in Moscow’s Cheremushki district, which has historically been a tricky constituency for United Russia.
Vladimir Porkhanov, chief physician of Krasnodar Regional Hospital No. 1, is once again leading United Russia’s party list in Krasnodar, though he’s been known to reject his mandate, as he did in 2016.
Unlike the medical contingent, promising new candidates with a background in education are few and far between.
In the five years since the last State Duma elections, Russia has replaced 75 governors in 63 regions, with new blood taking over from previous regional leaders’ hand-picked successors.
There’s every chance of the following being elected:
Lieutenant governor of Khanty-Mansiysk autonomous region, Dmitry Shuvalov;Former lieutenant governor and head of government for the Saratov region, Alexander Strelyukhin;Director for state-legal affairs at the Yamalo-Nenetsky autonomous region, Dmitry Pogorelyi;First deputy chairman of the government of Ryazan region, Dmitry Khubezov;Deputy chairman of the Transbaikal government, Andrey Gurulev;First deputy chairman of the government of the Sverdlovsk region, Andrey Vysokinsky, who briefly also governed Ekaterinburg;Education and youth minister in Chuvashia, Alla Salaeva;Chief of staff for the head of Bashkortostan, and former member of the State Duma, Alexander Sidyakin;Sport and youth policy minister for Buryatia, Vyacheslav Damdintsurunov;Sports minister for the Moscow region, Roman Teryushkov;Natural resources and ecology minister for Karachai-Cherkessia, Dzhasharbek Uzdenov;Deputy head of the council of ministers for Crimea, Evgeny Kabanov;Permanent representative of Dagestan to the Russian President, Dzhamaladin Gasanov;Secretary of state for Dagestan, Khizri Abakarov;Lieutenant governor and head of finance for the Vologda region, Valentina Artamonova;Adviser to the governor of the Moscow region with a ministerial rank, Alexander Kogan;Authorized representative of the governor of the Tula region in relations with municipal bodies, Nadezhda Shkolkina;Head of the state board for indigenous minorities in Chukotka, Elena Evtukhova.
A number of heavyweight federal officials, both former and current, are bound to end up getting seats. To name a few: former Employment and Social Care Minister Maxim Topilin; former Natural Resources Minister and ex-Governor of Yamal Dmitry Kobylkin; Deputy Employment and Social Care Minister and ex-Duma member Olga Batalina; ex-Deputy Prime Minister, former Agriculture Minister, and current State Duma Deputy Speaker Alexey Gordeev; and Tatyana Dyakonova, the human resources director at Russia’s Economic Development Ministry.
Inevitably, some candidates have enviable family connections. Good fortune will likely shine on Vasily Filipenko, the son of former Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous Region Governor Alexander Filipenko. The same goes for Olga Anufrieva, a senior partner at the “Andrey Makarov and Alexander Tobak” law firm, founded by Duma budget committee head Andrey Makarov.
Another expected winner is Magadan City Duma deputy Anton Basansky, the son of local business magnate Alexander Basansky. Meanwhile, in the Irkutsk region, the latest joke is that family members are vying for three of the region’s four available Duma seats: Sergey Ten (whose father served in the federal legislature), Alexander Yakubovsky (the son of former Irkutsk Mayor Vladimir), and Anton Krasnoshtanov (whose father is a property developer and also serves in the State Duma). Anton is currently Irkutsk’s first deputy mayor, but he is positioned to replace his dad in Moscow, after September’s elections.
Likely additions to the list of state corporation appointees:
Head of the Trans-Baikal Railway, Alexander Skachkov;Head of the Gorky Railway, Anatoly Lesun;HR director of defense company Uralvagonzavod, Konstantin Zakhanov;Chief technical officer for special projects at shipbuilding firm Sevmash, Alexander Spiridonov (Severodvinsk);Chief operations officer at Ulan-Ude Aircraft Works and member of Buryatia’s Khural of People’s Deputies, Leonid Belykh;Executive director of Rosneft-Ingushneft, Muslim Tatriev;CEO of Gazprom MezhRegionGas Tula and chairman of the regional Duma, Nikolai Vorobyov.
A likely winner from United Russia is Vladimir Gutenev, the president of the Defense Industry Support League and prominent Rostec lobbyist. Last year, he was dubbed a candidate to become governor of the Samara region.
New business leaders who may end up in the Duma:
Alfa-Bank deputy chief executive, Vladimir Senin;Lukoil head of relations with federal authorities and public organizations, Yury Stankevich;Tatneft director of Moscow representative office, Azat Yagafarov;UC RUSAL deputy director of the aluminum division, special projects;Tyazhmash CEO, Andrey Trifonov (Samara region);Chelyabinsk Pipe-Rolling Plant deputy CEO, Vladimir Pavlov.
Representatives of regional businesses:
Co-owner of Osnova Holding steelworks, Igor Antropenko (Omsk);Director of property development company SMU-88, Ilya Wolfson (Tatarstan);CEO of Kuban Bread, Dmitry Lotsmanov;Anton Nemkin, Sochi (founded the Sochi Digital Valley fund in 2018; represents one of Russia’s largest IT firms, AT Consulting);President of drilling operator UralBurStroi, Roman Vodyanov;Founder of Infamed, maker of Russia’s popular antiseptic Miramistin, Andrey Gorokhov (Kaliningrad);Deputy CEO of Sadovoye Koltso Development, Sergey Kolunov;President of Armada Group and member of the Orenburg regional legislative assembly, Andrey Anikeev.
We will also see the return of Oleg Savchenko (the chairman of the Bearing Manufacturers’ Association in Volgograd), Andrey Kolesnik (the director of the Kaliningrad Commercial Sea Port), and Igor Rudensky (a businessman from Penza).
Newcomers will include candidates who took part in the various state-run competitions aimed at “creating a new elite”, as well as representatives of social and quasi-public structures that are trying to join in with the hottest government-favored trends. These include various voluntary organizations, movements for the protection of family values or historic monuments, etc.
Competitions from recent years, somewhat reminiscent in the format of the late Komsomol “games”, are taken so seriously by the Kremlin that in almost every region their participants ended up in United Russia primaries. Some of them have made it onto the party lists and now stand a chance of getting into the Duma.
Whilst some of these candidates enjoy some level of renown, most are just driven and career-oriented young people. A bit like the young communists of the Komsomol movement in the dusk days of the Soviet Union who, under the protection of regional and city committee bosses, opened adult video stores and traded jeans under the guise of youth initiatives. A political Pandora’s box whose graduates might end up just about anywhere, depending on the market environment.
In 2020, State Duma deputy Denis Kravchenko from the Moscow region also won the “Leaders of Russia: Politics” national competition.
Yulia Ogloblina, who chaired the Russian Rural Youth Union, won the same accolade. She is in the running from her native Mordovia.
Maria Voropaeva works as an assistant to a State Duma deputy (it’s unclear which one). She holds a strong place on the party list this year, and she, too, won last year’s Leaders of Russia contest in the politics category.
Maria Vasilkova, a mysterious candidate from Irkutsk, has a weaker spot on United Russia’s party list. All we know about her is that her mentor was Industry and Trade Minister Denis Manturov.
One of this year’s stand-out candidates who has received significant praise is Krasnoyarsk city council deputy Natalya Kaptelinina. In 2007, she was involved in a serious road accident that left her almost entirely paralyzed, and she has since made it her job to defend people with musculoskeletal disorders. It is not entirely clear what this has to do with her political prospects or why the place she has on the party list is so much higher than many other better-known candidates. As noted in her profile on the primaries website, “in 2020, [she] was selected to be one of 100 finalists of the ‘Leaders of Russia: Politics’ contest, and [she] won the ‘Federal Polit Startup’ in 2021, representing United Russia.”
As volunteerism is so popular with the party in power, some seats will be taken by functionaries with a background in volunteering. For example, karate champion Anton Solovyev will win in St. Petersburg. He heads the Health, Physical Culture, and Sports Center in the city’s Frunzensk district, and his candidate profile notes that he “initiated the work of an All-Russia People’s Front volunteering center in 2020, in response to the coronavirus pandemic.” (Whatever “initiated” means.)
Vladimir Samokish, the chairman of the State Duma’s Budget, Economics, and Property Committee, will likely hold onto his seat. Samokish won the “Leaders of Russia” contest in 2018 and helped organize the #THANKYOUDOCTORS project in Tomsk.
Mikhail Vdovin, the first deputy chairman in Oryol’s regional legislature and the head of United Russia’s local faction, is also in a strong position. On March 24, 2020, he was appointed head of the party’s volunteer center to assist citizens with pandemic-related issues.
There’s every chance that the following candidates will make it:
Leader of the Russian Student Teams headquarters, Mikhail Kiselev;Council chair of the Association of Volunteer Centers, Artem Metelev (Moscow);Chair of the central headquarters of the Victory Volunteers movement, Olga Amelchenkova (Leningradsky region);Executive secretary of the Search Movement of Russia, Elena Tsunaeva (Novgorod region);Chair of the Civic Chamber committee for population science and the protection of families, children and traditional family values, Sergey Rybalchenko (Vologda region);Chair of Mothers Council of Russia, Tatyana Butskaya.
It is participants in these competitions for ambitious young people and members of pro-government public bodies that may well determine the face of the new parliament.
Still unknown, however, is to whom these candidates can turn (other than their “mentors” and “facilitators”) and whether voters will like them at all. Perhaps that is why United Russia’s list has been bulked out with 48 governors. This year’s election results now rest entirely on their shoulders.
Will any ‘New People’ make it?
The proportion of contest winners in the Duma will be even higher if the “New People” party gets through. This group turned to similar competition winners when nominating its candidates. In theory, the New People have a shot at becoming the fifth party to enter the Duma, particularly judging by the regional election results in September 2020 when the group won seats in every region in which it competed. There are three factors in its favor:
A catchy party name that intuitively sits well with people’s appetite for a renewed political system and their wish to see new faces in parliament, supported by corresponding slogans such as “let’s ban banning”; A powerful media campaign on national television and regional news outlets; andThe absence of negative coverage or disapproval ratings (with the exception of negative comments from some Internet users, which will have almost no impact on voters, if past experience is any guide).
What holds the New People back is the group’s lack of prominent, popular candidates on its party list (the only well-known candidate, other than party leader Alexey Nechaev, is the former mayor of Yakutsk, Sardana Avksentyeva) and a weak set of candidates in single-seat constituencies (when these candidates are strong, they always help boost votes for the party list, too).
It is difficult to predict how these strengths and weaknesses will play out, but results will likely range between 3 percent (which will secure state financing and benefits when registering for future elections) and 5 percent or more.
Even if the New People make it to Parliament, however, the party’s presence will be mere window dressing for the new Duma, changing little in the legislature’s overall alignment.
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Translation by Kate Vtorygina