Putin urges Russians to vote ahead of general election
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday urged Russians to vote in the upcoming parliamentary elections after a lackluster campaign season.
With early voting already underway in the petrochemical sector, polling stations nationwide will open for the three-day elections on Friday morning.
Putin’s United Russia Party is expected to comfortably maintain its dominance over the State Duma, where it currently holds a two-thirds majority.
After months of official measures to end any significant opposition, some officially fear that low turnout could damage the prestige of the ruling party.
In an eleventh hour video message on Thursday, Putin appealed to voters: “The election of the new parliament is without doubt the most important event in the life of our society and our country.
“We are all equally interested in the election of responsible, effective and respected people … I count on your responsible, thoughtful, patriotic and civic position.”
The landscape of this weekend’s vote
The Kremlin wants to retain control of the new parliament because it will still be in place in 2024 when Putin’s current term expires.
The longtime Russian prime minister will then have to decide whether to stand for re-election or choose another strategy to stay in power.
This year, 14 parties are running for half of the 450 seats in the lower house of the Russian legislature. But the three parties – apart from United Russia – which should get the 5% support needed to secure a seat rarely challenge the Kremlin.
The other half of the seats are chosen from individual constituencies, where independent candidates or those from small parties like the liberal Yabloko party may have better chances.
Polls indicate that general approval for United Russia is low. But nonetheless, the Independent Russian Center for Current Politics predicts it will win 299 to 306 seats: down from the 343 it currently holds, but within the range of the 303 seats needed to change the constitution.
The Center believes that most of the seats lost by United Russia will be taken over by the Communist Party. But this party also largely conforms to the Kremlin line.
In addition to the Duma elections, nine Russian regions will choose governors, 39 regions will choose legislative assemblies, and voters in 11 cities will choose city councils.
“There is very little intrigue in these elections … In fact, they will not leave any particular mark in political history,” Andrei Kolesnikov, analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told AP.
Ethical concerns can cast a shadow over the outcome
The result could be more easily contested this year than in previous elections. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said it would not send observers this weekend, saying Russia had imposed excessive restrictions.
In August, Moscow also added the independent vote-monitoring group Golos to its list of foreign agents. This does not block its work but could make it easier for the Kremlin to dismiss its findings.
Russia’s electoral commission ordered the vote to be extended to three days, ending on Sunday, to reduce turnout at the polls amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Critics have warned that this could increase the risk of ballot manipulation. The head of the committee, Ella Pamfilova, rejected the claim, saying there would be “total video surveillance” of the polling stations and that the ballots would be in secure containers.
According to surveys by Russian state-funded pollster VTsIOM, more than one in ten workers say they have received instructions from their boss on how to vote.
Ukrainian politicians also sounded the alarm on Thursday over the installation of polling stations in annexed Crimea, where Moscow issued 600,000 passports to pro-Russian separatists before the vote.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on Thursday also spoke out against the European Parliament on Thursday after the bloc said it was prepared not to recognize the results if it found them to be fraudulent.
“As in the past, we will defend ourselves against unacceptable interference in the national democratic process of the Russian Federation,” she said. “We strongly condemn the attempts by MEPs to manipulate European public opinion.”
Eliminate the opposition
The ongoing detention of opposition leader Alexei Navalny prompted mass protests across Russia earlier this year.
The Navalny Anti-Corruption Foundation and the network of around 40 regional offices were banned as extremist groups in July, and many of its key members were arrested.
Around 50 websites run by Navalny team or supporters have also been taken down by Russian authorities in recent months.
But the group’s “Smart Voting” initiative could still make inroads with the Russian electorate. It tells voters which alternative candidate is strongest in their region and might have a chance to topple United Russia.
In 2019, the platform boosted opposition candidates who won 20 of 45 seats in Moscow city council. In last year’s regional elections, United Russia lost its majority in Novosibirsk, Tambov and Tomsk.
It is unclear to what extent the smart voting program will be used this year after authorities blocked access to its website. The service remains available through apps, but Russia has threatened Apple and Google with fines if it is not removed from their online stores.
The Foreign Office last week summoned US Ambassador John Sullivan to protest electoral interference by US “digital giants”.