There’s a class of countries that can’t rightly be described without qualification as democracies, but where that description is not wholly misleading either. The largest and most important member of that class is Russia, which elected a new parliament (or State Duma) on Sunday.
Russian electoral procedures are modern and transparent; elections are contested by a diverse range of parties, and the elected bodies have real power. Nonetheless, the influence of the dominant party – and ultimately of its leader, president Vladimir Putin – is so overwhelming that what’s going on is not really an exercise in democracy.
The last parliamentary election, in December 2011, led to an outbreak of popular disaffection that briefly seemed to threaten Putin’s regime. But he weathered the storm, transferring from the prime ministership back to the presidency in 2012 and taking the country in a more authoritarian direction, culminating in the invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014.
This time around, public discontent seems to have manifested itself not in protest but in abstention: turnout on Sunday was down to 47.8%, the lowest since pre-Communist times. No-one was at all surprised that Putin’s party, United Russia, won a huge majority, with 343 of the 450 seats, up from 238 in the last parliament. (Official results from Russian news are here, although some familiarity with Cyrillic is useful; otherwise Reuters and the BBC have good reports.)
The shift in seats, however, is not primarily due to changes in voting behavior. The voting system has changed, shifting from one of nationwide proportional representation with a 5% threshold back to a mixed system, with half the seats elected that way and the other half chosen by first-past-the-post voting in single-member constituencies.
The PR seats showed much the same balance as last time. United Russia has 54.2% of the vote, up 4.9%. The same three other parties as before cleared the threshold, all of them in “opposition” but none seriously challenging Putin’s system: the Communists with 13.3% (down 5.8%), the Liberal Democrats (far-right, despite the name) 13.2% (up 1.5%) and A Just Russia (vaguely centre-left) 6.2% (down 7.0%).
But as expected, United Russia cleaned up on the single-member seats, winning 203 of the 225 on offer. The Communists and A Just Russia won seven each and the LDP five.
So the new system made the result much more lopsided. The single-member seats, however, did offer an opportunity to parties excluded by the 5% cutoff; last time it was run that way, in 2003, the liberal opposition forces were able to win a few seats and therefore maintain some genuinely critical voice in parliament.
But the low turnout and general climate of intimidation prevented even that. Only two smaller parties won representation, and only one seat each: Rodina (right-wing nationalist) and Civic Platform (centrist). There is also one independent.
The largest liberal party, Yabloko, won 2.0% of the vote (down 1.5%) but failed to win a seat, although it led in one of the single-member seats in early counting. It had 9.5% of the vote in Moscow and 9.1% in St Petersburg, but little support elsewhere – and turnout in the big cities was exceptionally poor.
So Putin will have a free hand in parliamentary terms. It is universally expected that he will seek re-election for another six-year term in 2018, and if he wants to he now has the power to change the constitution to go beyond that. But there are still serious problems on his horizon – western sanctions and low oil prices have done major economic damage – and history shows that a lack of internal criticism does not necessarily work to a government’s advantage.
Russia, at least for the moment, is not a dictatorship: opposition voices are heard and the government cannot completely ignore public opinion. But in comparison with functioning democracies, the task of opposition is a great deal more difficult and dangerous.