Ahead of this fall’s Duma elections, all eyes are now on Russia’s political primaries taking place on May 22. For United Russia, the current ruling party, they are a test of the strength and diversity of the nation’s political platform.

At the 15th Congress of the United Russia Party at the VDNKh Exhibition Center, Moscow, February 5, 2016. The hashtag on the photo reads "United." Photo: Stanislav Krasilnikov/TASS

On May 22, more than 12,000 polling stations will open all over Russia for people to vote in political primaries. The results of these primaries will help to determine which candidates will run for seats in the State Duma, the nation’s lower house of parliament, in September.

While political primaries in Russia are still a relatively new phenomenon, having been introduced a little over eight years ago, they have gained particular prominence this year. Partially, of course, this is a result of the attention being paid to the presidential primaries in the U.S., a lengthy and complex process that is baffling to many Russians.

But more importantly, these upcoming primaries are a test of the strength and durability of Russia’s current political institutions. Of particular interest will be the results of the primaries for Russia’s ruling party, United Russia. In many ways, United Russia is using the upcoming primaries as a way to market test which of its candidates and themes resonate with voters before the all-important Duma elections.

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The evolution of political primaries in Russia

In Russia, the first intraparty primaries occurred in August 2007. The procedure was adopted and has been applied ever since by United Russia, now the largest and most influential political party in Russia.

According to Alexey Mukhin, director general at the Center for Political Information, United Russia has all the characteristics of a political institution. “That is why its primaries are so massive with 3,000 candidates. Other parties are also trying to keep up. They organize intraparty events that resemble primaries, but have limited financial and technical resources. That is why it appears that only United Russia holds primaries,” he says.

Since United Russia is the ruling party, the fight for access to real power in the form of Duma seats is fierce and noticeable. “Within United Russia, competition is higher than in other parties because here actual parliamentary seats are at stake,” points out Arkady Liubarev, head of the Election Campaign Monitoring Directorate at the Independent Institute of Elections.

He explains that, before switching to the system of primaries, the party used several election formats. “Under some formats, votes are cast by a limited group of people, while others involve an open ballot, but different regions handled the process differently,” he says.

The main peculiarity of the current large-scale primaries is that anyone can put his or her name in and anyone can vote in the election.

Of course, there are some basic rules that candidates have to follow. “There are simple rules, such as do not insult other candidates and the authorities. In addition, participation in public debates is mandatory. If you miss two debates, you will not be allowed to compete in the primaries. Only acting heads of regions are excused from taking part in debates. Our goal is to discover the strengths and weaknesses of our future campaign and see how we can efficiently fight off our opponents’ attacks,” shares Robert Schlegel, a State Duma representative from United Russia.

Videos of debates are posted on social networking sites, the official party website and YouTube, enabling broader discussion of campaign issues.

Mukhin thinks that by inviting candidates to participate who are not from United Russia, the party kills two birds with one stone, “Typically these outside candidates are strong public activists willing to offer their services as party representatives. This way, United Russia can assess its approval ratings, arrange for a social lift, attract young members, and boost its efficiency.”

For United Russia, these primaries are not that costly, but difficult to organize. Schlegel explains, “I do not find it expensive. The cost of venue rental in the regions is quite reasonable, and the videos that we process and post are made by our website support staff. The only considerable expense is TV commercials, but advertising is included within the party budget before the election anyway.”

Schlegel’s fellow party member and debate participant Konstantin Mazurevsky, deputy head of United Russia’s Central Executive Committee, suggests that the primaries are not cheap, but parliamentary parties should be able to find ways to finance them. There might be cheaper mechanisms, such as online voting, for example.

Do primaries really help to elect the best candidates?

According to officials at United Russia, other parties are simply hesitant about adopting such an open procedure. Schlegel comments, “We implemented the model that is similar to the main election. Other parties will be making their decisions based on intraparty procedures. They fear that this mechanism can be used against them, and they may not be ready for it at the organizational level.”  

Mukhin is of a different opinion. He points out that all parties to a certain degree utilize the primaries mechanism to determine popular candidates, “Not all parties possess such extensive resources as United Russia, but many organizations are about to adopt the open primaries format. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation has come the closest to holding its own primaries.”

There is another party that has held preliminary elections – Parnas, the party of the Russian opposition also called the “People’s Freedom Party,” which does not currently hold any parliamentary seats. Parnas is not particularly well funded, but it found a way to play by these rules. Their primaries had some setbacks, as they were accompanied by scandals involving non-party members.

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According to Liubarev, “We have only two parties, Parnas and United Russia, which are actually holding primaries. Parnas is trying to broaden its electoral base and boost its contact with voters.” He points out the inherent danger of primaries for small parties, “For such parties, it would be a good idea to follow in United Russia’s footsteps, but the open ballot poses a clear threat to their political process. Their opponents might vote in the primaries and deliberately prop up controversial candidates, thus effectively blocking the popular ones from taking part in the general election.”

United Russia has a different kind of problem due to its administrative resources. Mukhin states that, “Sometimes the regional authorities try to use administrative resources and the primaries to prop up their protégés.” In Siberia, the behind-the-scenes political maneuvering even led to a popular candidate failing to win the election.

The future of political primaries in Russia

Mukhin emphasizes that the Presidential Administration has highlighted the importance of having “a competitive, transparent, lawsuit-free election.” From this perspective, the primaries help implement this directive.

He believes that Russia has a lot to gain from this trend. “Primaries were adopted several years ago, and in the beginning, the system was difficult to comprehend. With the passage of time, technologies get perfected, and understanding sets in,” Mukhin says.

United Russia party members are already anticipating the potential introduction of the primary system into national legislation. Schlegel argues, “I think that we need to make this procedure into law. It is a useful tool that helps people learn about various candidates. It makes the process transparent and interesting. It is a testimony to the evolution of our system.”

But experts are not so sure that requiring primaries for all parties is the best option. “There has been talk about legislating primaries, but that is unnecessary. All parties have different resources, and there is no need to mandate anything,” Mukhin concludes.