The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Kremlin’s Victory Didn’t Come Cheap

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The final votes are still trickling in, but the verdict is already out. Russia’s ruling party has retained its supermajority in the Duma, ensuring control of the legislature in the years running up to the 2024 presidential election. 

Whether that’s really the decisive victory the Kremlin wanted is less obvious.

True, opposition efforts to champion tactical voting were nowhere near enough to deny pro-Kremlin United Russia its constitutional majority. That was never a credible ambition. Alexey Navalny, the loudest of President Vladimir Putin’s critics and figurehead of the campaign, has been in jail for months and his organization has been banned as “extremist.” Authorities have made a concerted effort to block access to information on his “smart voting” campaign, pressing Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Apple Inc. to pull from their stores purpose-built apps designed to guide disgruntled citizens’ choices. Even Telegram, popular with protesters, blocked a related channel.

The figures also look clear-cut. By Monday morning in Moscow, United Russia said it was on track to take 315 seats out of 450, the vast majority of those coming from single-mandate districts, where a first-past-the-post system punishes a splintered opposition, rather than party lists. The final figure looks set to be higher. Despite a mediocre popularity rating, squeezed incomes and a pandemic still claiming nearly 800 Russian lives daily, the dominant party has achieved a result only marginally worse than 2016, when Moscow was still basking in the glow of the annexation of Crimea. 

But the reality is that United Russia was never going to lose this race, given the stakes. With 2024 on the horizon, the Kremlin needs the option of being able to make constitutional changes, as it did last year, without relying on other parties — and that requires enough seats. It needed the sweeping victory headlines to bolster its popular claim to legitimacy and to silence grumbling among elites that had become louder as United Russia’s popularity faltered.

More telling is the unprecedented scramble to reach those numbers. Even hobbled, in exile or behind bars, Putin’s adversaries have succeeded in forcing the Kremlin to pull every lever to guarantee the desired outcome. That’s ranged from the relentless campaign against Navalny and his organization to the crackdown on independent media and “foreign agents.” The vote was stretched over three days, a pandemic measure that helps bring out loyal groups like the elderly and makes monitors’ jobs harder. There have been moments of farce too, as with lookalike spoiler candidates in St. Petersburg when two clone Boris Vishnevskys registered to compete with the original oppositionist. 

The past few days have brought the predictable proliferation of reports of irregularities, as videos of ballot-stuffing circulate on social media. Independent monitor Golos recorded nearly 5,000 possible violations, double the number reported in the vote five years ago.

Despite all that, mass protest looks unlikely, and that’s a blow for Navalny’s team. Even a brewing dispute over the role of e-voting in Moscow — where the Communist Party and others have questioned last-minute swings for United Russia once electronic votes were added — is unlikely to prompt a repeat of 2011, when allegations of fraud triggered mass demonstrations. The repressive nature of the state in 2021 has dramatically increased the stakes for regular citizens. That doesn’t mean that this campaign’s huge cost will not prove troublesome for a government that is not yet ready to give up on elections and other democratic fig leaves. No wonder the government finds excesses like the trio of Vishnevskys irksome.

Another potential alloying factor here is the success of the Communist Party, which has added the largest number of seats compared to 2016. A tame opposition long tolerated by the Kremlin, it has increasingly vocal young firebrands and gained in this ballot where United Russia faltered, including in the vast Siberian region of Yakutia. A general mobilization of the opposition appears to have made the difference, though political analyst Andras Toth-Czifra points out that it is less clear whether this translates into a more combative party in practice, given divisions between those at the center more eager to compromise and the rest.

The Kremlin’s fate in 2021 does not directly determine 2024’s presidential race, not least because of Putin’s far higher personal popularity. It was still a testing ground for mechanisms from e-voting to internet controls. All will be reappearing.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities and environmental, social and governance issues. Previously, she was an associate editor for Reuters Breakingviews, and editor and correspondent for Reuters in Singapore, India, the U.K., Italy and Russia.

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