“Election” preview: Russia

Russians go to the polls on Sunday to choose, in theory at least, the 450 members of the lower house of parliament, known as the State Duma. United Russia, the party of president Vladimir Putin, currently holds 343 seats, a majority of 236 against all others.

Five years ago, after the last election, I said this:

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.

A lot has happened in five years in Russia, little of it good. Once a badly flawed democracy, Russia has become, if not strictly speaking a dictatorship, then at least as close to one as barely matters. Alexei Navalny, the most prominent opposition figure, remains in prison after narrowly surviving an assassination attempt a year ago, and a variety of dirty tricks have been used to prevent actual opponents of the regime from appearing on the ballot.

As a very illuminating New York Times report this week puts it, “Putin’s rule has reached a new apogee of authoritarianism, coated in a patina of comfortable stability.” Last year, a constitutional amendment freed Putin from the constraint of term limits, and there is no sign that he has any intention of relaxing his complete control of the country’s institutions.

Nonetheless, the election is not without interest. While the three main “opposition” parties are in reality all accessories to the regime, it would at least be a psychological blow to Putin if he were to be forced to rely on one of them for a parliamentary majority. And (with the usual caveats about polling under authoritarian regimes) opinion polls show United Russia supported by only about a third of voters, well down from the 55.2% it recorded in 2016.

The relationship between votes and seats, however, is not straightforward. Only half the seats are awarded proportionally (with a 5% threshold); the other 225 are chosen in single-member districts, voting first-past-the-post. That provides some scope for a minor party or independent to win a seat – three did so last time, although none of them are actually anti-Putin – but it also gives a big bonus to the party in the lead.

Last time United Russia won 203 of the single-member seats, so in order for it to lose its majority (or even, more modestly, to lose its two-thirds majority) the other parties have to make some major inroads there. Navalny and other opponents of the regime are urging voters to back whichever party has the best chance of beating United Russia in each district, regardless of its ideology, but it remains to be seen whether this will have more than a marginal effect.

The three “opposition” parties are the Communists, who in 2016 won 13.6% of the vote and 42 seats, the horribly misnamed Liberal Democrats (actually far right, 13.4% and 39 seats) and the centre-left A Just Russia (6.3% and 23 seats). Also within reach of the threshold – and also part of the Putin system – is a new centre-right party, New People. The established liberal party, Yabloko, which managed only 2.0% last time, has been crippled by its refusal to work with Navalny and seems likely to fade to irrelevance.

As long as Putin remains dominant, the other parties will content themselves with an occasional show of dissent while remaining fundamentally loyal to his system. But the key difference from an actual one-party state is that the potential is there for them to break away at some point in the future if the incentives change. While Russia is not a democracy, the formal institutions of democracy are still in place and able to be reactivated if authoritarian control is somehow removed.

In this it contrasts with China, much in the news yesterday and today with a new American-led defence initiative to which Australia has signed up. But although they started at different points, Russia and China have pursued a similar course of increasing authoritarianism, and have met with a similar reluctance in the west to confront the real issue.

Neither the west’s Russia hawks nor its China hawks (often, but not always, the same people) have ever cared much about democracy. Their concerns are geostrategic and tribal, so they focus not on what’s happening inside those countries – murder of opponents, suppression of democracy, or in China’s case actual genocide – but on their foreign policies.

We know, from countless examples already, the harm that democratic backsliding can bring in its train. Russia is a case study. But whether because it all seems too dull (whereas submarines are exciting!), or because too many people in the west already have dirty hands on the subject, it mostly passes without comment. There are no grand international efforts to campaign for democracy; instead, foreign policy differences are magnified and distorted because no-one wants to talk about domestic policy.

Putin’s Russia is still not in China’s league, and for that we can be grateful. But who knows what another five years might bring?

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