Making sense of the Russian parliamentary elections of 18 September 2016: a first attempt

Only after the voting results came in did Western media perk up and publish reports about Russia’s Duma elections.  What have they said and what have they left out or failed to explain? Read on…

Making sense of the Russian parliamentary elections of 18 September 2016: a first attempt


by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.


In my essay giving my predictions for results of the forthcoming Russian parliamentary elections published late last week, I wrongly concluded that United Russia would lose its majority position in the lower house and would be compelled to form a coalition cabinet with some runner-up. I expected the governing party to be punished for being insufficiently strong defenders of Russian interests compared to the populists in Liberal Democratic (LDPR) and Communist (CPRF) parties with their full-throated nationalism.

Though I did not discuss it, I also thought United Russia would pay a price in electoral support for the country’s ongoing economic woes. After all, the latest news showed that Russians’ purchasing power was down 8% on a year ago and the country is still officially in recession.

At the time I wrote my essay, political observers in Russia were speaking of a possible 40% share of the vote for United Russia, while some suggested it could dip as low as 30%.

As I reflect on my mistake, I think back to the days when I was still a young marketing executive in a US multinational company and took part in our team effort each September to produce the annual Business Plan. We each wrote up country plans for our areas of responsibility using for our projections GNP figures and political stability analyses that we got from the several market intelligence services to which we, like so many peers and competitors, subscribed.

We had little confidence in the reliability of the forecasts we purchased and handed on. But our boss insisted that the planning exercise was essential nonetheless. As he put it:  if you write a forecast, maybe you will be unlucky and come in 50% wrong; if you don’t do a forecast, you will be infinitely wrong.  By this rule of thumb, most Western media were infinitely wrong.

In the end, I miscalculated the impact of populism on the Russian elections.  But most of our Western media either gave no advance coverage on the looming Russian elections or put out tiny articles that one could easily overlook. Typically, on Saturday 17 September, France’s leading centrist daily Le Figaro devoted about 200 words to the Russian elections and two full pages to the Sunday elections in Berlin, where a large anti-Merkel vote was anticipated. The paucity of advance coverage of the Russian elections in Western media corresponded to the general place of Russian subjects in the priorities of those media and their audiences. 

To be fair, on the morning of the 18th at least two major media outlets I consulted predicted a win for Putin’s United Russia: Euronews and Bloomberg. But apart from Bloomberg’s mention of the single-mandate electoral districts as a possible factor (which they did not explain) the two outlets gave almost no reasons why this outcome was to be expected. In the absence of any substantive explanation for this prediction, one could assume it flowed from the regime’s crackdown on civil liberties and tightened control, in keeping with Putin’s image as villain.

Once the election results came in, more Western media perked up and published reports. The New York Times and The Financial Times suddenly found space for Russia, issuing articles under very similar titles that give away their slant at once:  “Vladimir Putin Tightens Grip on Russia’s Parliament With Election Rout” for the former and “Russia’s ruling party tightens its grip on lower house” for the latter.

In these articles we read about the Kremlin’s “political technologists” and the mechanisms they used to ensure success.  One such trick, we are told by these newspapers and other Western media, was that the election date was moved forward to September from its usual date in December to ensure low turnout in the capitals of Petersburg and Moscow, where the liberal-minded electorate, unfriendly to the Kremlin would assuredly be out in the countryside harvesting apples and potatoes on their country plots instead of dutifully lining up to vote in the city center.

The emptiness of such an explanation is clear to anyone who knows something about Russia, its climate and its people.  It was entirely unknowable a half year or more in advance that this particular Sunday in the middle of September would be sunny and warm rather than rainy and miserable, as so often happens in European Russia.

 Nor can I accept the notion others have mentioned to explain voter apathy:  that a September election day meant that the electorate would be on vacation in the three months ahead of the elections and so the campaigns would not attract due attention, would be lackluster, resulting in low turnout.  Russians like to party, but they do not go away for three months. Nor do they all go on vacation during the same 2 or 3 week period in August like the French.  So this explanation of the flat campaign is irrelevant.

What is most important here is the fallacious link between low turnout and higher returns for United Russia.  On the contrary, I believe low turnout as a general phenomenon not linked to some openly declared boycott makes it doubly difficult to get results in the ballot box that reflect the public opinion polls taken before the election.  A well-documented example of this was the September 2013 mayoral election in Moscow when the turnout was surprisingly low, at 32% and the heavy favorite, Acting Mayor Sergey Sobyanin from United Russia, polled just 51% of the vote (46% according to the Opposition) and the fiercely anti-Kremlin candidate Alexei Navalny received 27% (35% according to his partisans). If anti-Kremlin voters in Moscow and St Petersburg stayed home or at their dachas this past Sunday, you have to look deeper into their motivation, which I will attempt to do further on.

Western accounts of the Russian elections, including the two aforementioned daily newspapers, necessarily reminded readers of the electoral fraud in 2011 that brought out large street demonstrations against the regime. They quote personalities from the fringe opposition claiming that such ballot stuffing was perpetrated this time as well.  However, to the credit of The New York Times, after opening this wound, they quickly close it with a band-aid and we read the following: “Over all, analysts said, the Kremlin seemed to have kept its word to run a clean race.”

Another accusation coming from the marginal opposition and carried by the NYT bears mention and much greater detail than it is given, namely the charge that the ruling party enjoyed “a virtual monopoly on the television airwaves.”

I have not seen any reports on air time on state television allocated to the political parties in this campaign, and what I am about to say is the result of my own informal monitoring of the RTR and 1 Kanal channels from their satellite broadcasting. I assume the video spots which were grouped within Campaign 2016 breaks in the broadcasting schedule were allocated rather than paid for.  In any case, in the couple of weeks prior to election day I saw many video clips from all major parties, including even several showing anti-Kremlin parties, as opposed to loyal opposition:  Grigory Yavlinsky from Yabloko and Mikhail Kasyanov from Parnas.

To be sure, more clips were aired on behalf of United Russia and the nationalist LDPR, whose chairman, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, was otherwise appearing every day on the main political talk shows of the state television networks.  The Communist Party clips were few and far between.  However, in the last four days before the “day of silence” preceding election day, there is no question but that United Russia had saturation advertising on the state channels.  This, of course, is when many people make up their mind whether to vote and whom to vote for.

I emphasize that these are personal impressions, and I look forward to more serious scrutiny of the issue by researchers and political commentators in the coming weeks.

As I have noted, the issue of  “single-mandate” voting which was reintroduced this year in parallel with the scheme of voting by party lists was picked up by Bloomberg as a factor which gave an advantage to United Russia in this year’s election. The New York Times and other Western media outlets also mention this factor, although no one explains how or why it would benefit precisely United Russia.  Allow me to do that here, because it is not a small issue. Indeed, whereas United Russia picked up its Duma seats via the party lists in line with its 54% of votes cast, it got nearly four-fifths of the single mandate seats. This is what propelled it to the commanding heights it will enjoy in the next, 7th State Duma, where it can safely expect to pass all its key legislation without seeking the support of the other parties.






Before proceeding with this explanation, let us first put this issue of voting schemes in its historical context.


In the single-mandate scheme, which functions like elections in the USA or the UK, the voter casts his or her ballot for a specific candidate who generally comes from the given electoral district, has a local reputation and is committed to representing in the parliament the voters from the given district.  That was Russia’s system up to 2003. It was replaced in 2003 by party lists, because the single-mandates were satrapies of local oligarchs and many seats were taken by criminals with deep pockets to buy votes who sought deputy status for the sake of  immunity from prosecution.

The party list system introduced in 2003 centralized the entire process of choosing candidates and put the accent on the party platform, not personalities. At the same time, it removed the connection between Duma members and local interests. 

In one sense, the reintroduction of single mandates for half of the seats in the Duma may be seen as an insurance policy for United Russia to raise the profile of individual candidates and play down the party label in case it had gone stale with voters. Moreover, the ruling party would have a clear advantage precisely because it was the ruling party and had experienced people with government service in every voting district across the country, whereas most opposition parties are by nature spotty in their nationwide organizations.

However, as has become clear from Russian television coverage on election night and interviews with the Duma candidates, United Russia used the new opportunities of single mandate voting in a very constructive manner, following instructions from Putin and Medvedev.  Specifically, they introduced an American style ‘primaries’ procedure to screen their potential candidates to the Duma for popularity before naming them.  In effect, about two-thirds of all United Russia candidates for the Duma are new faces, many of them with local authority. And the party ensured that the candidates, once named, worked their territory:  went out to meet ordinary people in the streets, in their courtyards and talk with them about the local issues troubling them.  This is something largely unheard of in Russian politics which have traditionally been top-down, including virtually all the opposition movements. Is it any wonder that this approach to the election won handsomely for the ruling party?

Many commentators within Russia have blamed the low turnout on a dull campaign.  Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the Communist Party (CPRF) specifically accused the ruling party of resisting his call for televised debates, so that the domestic policies in campaign platforms that do separate his and the two other opposition parties in the Duma from each other and from the ruling party would get comprehensive exposure before the public instead of the sound bites all the parties were given. This did not happen, and no doubt contributed to voter apathy.

But there is another factor which probably contributed more to low turnout, especially in the capitals, where the non-systemic and other anti-Kremlin sentiment is especially strong.

The so-called Liberal parties like Yabloko and Parnas were disadvantaged and wrong-footed going into these elections because they were seen to be unpatriotic if not treasonous with regard to their foreign policy positions.  The rise in patriotic mood following the Russian reunification with Crimea in March 2014 set a new tone for Russian political life to which the Liberal parties with their pro-Western, pro-American bias were totally at odds.  Every party that made it into the Duma held “Crimea is Ours” slogans.  The Liberals did not, could not and so marginalized themselves on 18 September.


In my expectation that United Russia would be adversely affected by the ongoing recession and the population’s loss of purchasing power, I overlooked one compensatory element of economic news: the unemployment level which remains low, virtually on a par with the US and half of that in Western Europe.

This feature of economic life has been highlighted recently in discussions of the policy line that Central Bank Governor Nabiullina set out at the end of last week. She announced the Bank’s decision to drop the prime rate but insisted it will hold the rate unchanged till at least the end of the year to guard against inflation.

As analysts have noted, the potential source of inflation is precisely in the labor market.  Tightness in the labor market and the protection of jobs by employers during the two year downturn even as they eliminated paid holidays and sought other economies may be explained by demographics – namely the stagnating or declining numbers of able bodied workers that results from the collapse of the birth rate during the chaotic and deep-depression 1990s in Russia.  Moreover, the large contingent of migratory workers from Central Asia, Azerbaijan and other former constituent republics of the Soviet Union either went home when the Russian economy imploded in 2014 or have not come to Russia given the shrunken opportunities in the construction industry and other manual jobs.

Some commentators have remarked that the 48% overall turnout yesterday was in line with voter turnout in advanced democracies, and that is undeniable.  So it is not on the face of it clear what it says about the evolution of Russian political institutions.

More generally, all of the analyses of the 18 September elections in Russia published in country and abroad so far have one common failing:  they look at the results of the Duma vote in isolation and ignore the results of the balloting for provincial legislative assemblies and mayors or governors that went on simultaneously.  Even the first results that I noted on Russian television Sunday evening suggested that the spread of votes among the various parties in the voting for local assemblies is broader than for the Duma seats.  This all deserves close study in the coming weeks.


Finally, in closing I wish to share a personal observation from my visit to the polling center at the Russian Embassy in Brussels on Sunday which turned up a remarkable feature of these elections that no commentator inside or outside Russia seems to have shared when talking about the opacity or transparency of Russia’s 2018 elections.


 For the single mandate candidates, there is a board near the voting booths with detailed information about each candidate:  present job, education and work experience, how many bank accounts owned and totals; make, model and year of their cars;  real estate owned, showing the number of square meters of apartments or houses and surface area of plots of land; annual declared income.   Now where else in Europe or the USA do you see that level of clarity?  Russia is on the move in the right direction.


© Gilbert Doctorow, 2016



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 G. Doctorow is the European Coordinator of The American Committee for East West Accord. His most recent book, Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015.