MOSCOW — Now that United Russia, the party founded by Russian President Vladimir Putin, has won a landslide constitutional majority in parliamentary elections, the Kremlin has gained the ability to wield virtually full control over the legislature during a period of economic downturn.
Never in post-Soviet Russian history has a ruling party so dominated the State Duma. With 343 seats in the 450-member parliament, United Russia will be able to change the constitution by way of a strict party vote — and there will be no openly critical voices to contend with.
“Putin has received a new resource to maintain stability. Everyone understood that if the Duma was more opposition-leaning, it would be bad for a period of transition until the presidential elections” scheduled for 2018, said Alexey Chesnakov, a political strategist and former top official in United Russia who now heads the Moscow-based Center for Current Politics.
A main concern in that transitional period will be money, or a shortage of it. Russia is spending billions of dollars to cover a budget shortfall of around 3 percent of gross domestic product because of low crude prices and international sanctions, and it is expected to exhaust one of its two sovereign funds next year. There are contesting visions of how to fill the gap, but cutbacks on social entitlements would be one likely solution.
“This Duma will have to make unpopular decisions, ones they didn’t talk about during the election campaign,” said Alexei Makarkin of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies, noting a possible rise in the pension age. “And if a political decision is made then they are going to have to vote for it, whether they like it or not.”
It is a sidekick role that Russia’s legislature, and its ruling party, have played for years: shouldering broad social entitlements and then taking the heat if those promises come up short.
“We just don’t have the money right now,” Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev told an angry retiree in Crimea this May, explaining why her pension had not increased. “When we find the money, we’ll index the pensions.”
And then, in a moment of poor judgment destined to go viral, he added: “You hang in there! Cheers, take care.”
Polling before the elections suggested that United Russia’s popularity had suffered from the ailing economy, falling as low as 45 percent, and the party built its reelection campaign around images of Putin, releasing posters and television ads with the slogan “the party of the president.”
“I voted for United Russia because they always say they are with the president, and I trust our president,” Irina Avdeeva, 46, an engineer who works for a government agency in Moscow, said as she paused outside a polling station in northwest Moscow on Sunday. “I think he is trying hard and works really hard for our country. I respect him. So my vote was more for him than for United Russia.”
Ultimately, United Russia mustered 54 percent of the vote, but its landslide victory was ensured by a new system of head-to-head contests in voting districts. Turnout for the elections marked a historic low at 48 percent, a decrease of 12 percentage points from the 2011 vote.
“This is a system that rests on a ruling party that isn’t all that popular,” said Samuel Greene, a political sociologist and director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London. “Over the past five years there has been an effort to create an active, mobilized, pro-regime constituency. And while they’ve certainly created a constituency that is not going to vote for the opposition, they don’t seem to have generated a great degree of enthusiasm for United Russia.”
Russia’s Communist Party won 42 seats (9.3 percent), the nationalist LDPR party took 39 seats (8.7 percent), and the leftist A Just Russia party received 23 seats (5.1 percent). All are considered “systemic” opposition parties, none oppose Putin, and all regularly vote with United Russia on legislation considered desirable by the authorities.
Liberal opposition members accused the government of using administrative resources and controlled media to dominate the campaign. Videos of ballot stuffing at some polling stations were also widely shared.
But there was also soul searching over the low turnout, which was lowest in the large cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg where support for opposition parties is strongest.
“One can’t be elected to the Duma, if people don’t believe in the elections,” wrote Dmitry Gudkov, a candidate who ran with the liberal party Yabloko in the Moscow district of Tushino. He described the “enemy” as “the turnout, or lack thereof. Distrust. Apathy.”
Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin spin doctor and now independent political strategist, said that opposition campaigns were hassled by the government, but he added that they also “did not make many of their potential, democratically oriented voters an attractive political offer.” One misstep may have been an “anti-Putin agenda in which some of their voters are not interested.”
United Russia will be represented in the Duma by a large number of newcomers.
“Fewer are representatives of business, more are representatives of what you would call grass roots,” said Yevgeny Minchenko, a political analyst, adding that it was not yet clear how the Kremlin would use the new parliament.
“I don’t expect any big changes because the previous Duma was also quite comfortable for the government and for Putin, most of the legislation they wanted was passed,” he said.
The first task is the budget, said Sergei Naryshkin, the Duma’s chairman, on Monday, hinting that it might contain cuts.
“The bill on next year’s state budget is not going to become hostage to the electoral campaign, and I am sure that the State Duma will exhibit more professionalism, not populism, when considering the budget bill,” he said in remarks to the Interfax news service that were published on Monday.