Russia Votes in Election Without Opp. 09/16 06:15
MOSCOW (AP) -- After a few weeks of desultory campaigning but months of
relentless official moves to shut down significant opposition, Russia is
holding three days of voting this weekend in a parliamentary election that is
unlikely to change the country's political complexion.
There's no expectation that United Russia, the party devoted to President
Vladimir Putin, will lose its dominance of the State Duma, the elected lower
house of parliament. The main questions to be answered are whether the party
will retain its current two-thirds majority that allows it to amend the
constitution; whether anemic turnout will dull the party's prestige; and
whether imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny's Smart Voting initiative
proves to be a viable strategy against it.
"There is very little intrigue in these elections ... and in fact they will
not leave a special trace in political history," Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst
at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told The Associated Press.
Putin, however, on Thursday urged Russians to vote, saying in a video
message that "election of (the Duma's) new composition is undoubtedly the most
important event in the life of our society and country."
With 14 parties fielding candidates for half of the Duma's 450 seats that
are chosen by party list, the election has a veneer of being genuinely
competitive. But the three parties aside from United Russia that are expected
to clear the 5% support necessary to get a seat rarely challenge the Kremlin.
The Kremlin wants control over the new parliament, which will still be in
place in 2024, when Putin's current term expires and he must decide on running
for reelection or choosing some other strategy to stay in power.
The other half of the seats are chosen in individual constituencies, where
independent candidates or those from small parties such as the liberal Yabloko
may have stronger chances. These seats are also where the Navalny team's Smart
Voting strategy could make inroads.
The program sidesteps ideology in order to undermine United Russia, simply
advising voters which candidate other than the ruling party's is the strongest
in a single-mandate race.
It's essentially a defensive strategy.
"Voting to harm United Russia is not a meaningful goal, not a goal to choose
another candidate whom you ideologically support," Kolesnikov said. But it
showed potency in its inaugural use in 2018 when opposition candidates won 20
of 45 seats in the Moscow city council, and a year later when United Russia
lost its majorities in the councils of three large cities.
However, it's unclear how widely it will be used this year after authorities
blocked access to its website. The service remains available through apps, but
Russia has threatened fines against Apple and Google to remove the apps from
their online stores. The Foreign Ministry last week summoned U.S. Ambassador
John Sullivan to protest election interference by American "digital giants."
Blocking the website was the latest move to neutralize the Navalny
operation, which was Russia's most visible and determined opposition
organization, capable of calling sizable protests throughout the country.
Navalny himself was jailed in January upon returning to Russia from Germany
where he had been recuperating from nerve-agent poisoning; he was subsequently
sentenced to 2 years in prison. A court later outlawed Navalny's Foundation
for Fighting Corruption and a network of his regional offices as extremist
organizations, a verdict that barred people associated with the groups from
seeking public office and exposed them to lengthy prison terms.
Russian authorities also blocked some 50 websites run by his team or
supporters for allegedly disseminating extremist propaganda.
In August, Russia added the independent vote-monitoring group Golos to its
list of foreign agents, a move that does not block its work but strongly
suggests it should be regarded with suspicion.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, whose
election-monitoring missions are widely regarded as authoritative, will not
send observers for the parliament vote, saying that Russia imposed excessive
In addition to the Duma election, nine Russian regions will be choosing
governors, 39 regions will be choosing legislatures and voters in 11 cities
will be choosing city councils.
The Elections Commission ordered voting expanded to three days, concluding
on Sunday, to reduce crowding at the polls amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Critics say the decision raises the chance of ballot manipulation. Commission
head Ella Pamfilova rejects the accusation, saying there will be "total video
surveillance" of polling places and that ballots will be in secure containers.
Other ethical concerns also hover over the election. According to the
state-funded pollster VTsIOM, more than one in 10 workers say they have been
given directives by their bosses to vote. In St. Petersburg, a candidate from
the Yabloko party named Boris Vishnevsky, who is running simultaneously for the
Duma and a regional legislature, discovered that there are two other men using
that name opposing him in each race -- one of whom is a member of United
Russia, according to the newspaper Novaya Gazeta.
Although polls indicate that general approval for United Russia is low, the
party is expected to ride to an overwhelming first place in the new parliament.
The independent Center for Current Politics predicts it will score 299-306
seats -- down from the 343 it currently holds but within the range of the 303
seats needed to change the constitution.
The center's prognosis suggests that most of the seats lost by United Russia
would be picked up by the Communist Party, the second-largest parliamentary
faction. But the party largely conforms to the Kremlin line, as do the two
other parties likely to get double-digit seats.
"The Communists themselves are not very dangerous," said commentator Sergei
Parkhomenko on Ekho Moskvy radio. The party is "a tool for imitating an
Allegations of widespread voting fraud sparked large protests in Moscow and
St. Petersburg after the 2011 Duma elections. But with opposition groups
neutered, the prospect of unrest this time appears remote.
"Protests will not take place where we expect them, not at the time when we
expect them and not from those from whom we expect them," Parkhomenko said.