What does the victory of the United Russia ruling party in the parliamentary elections mean for Russia’s political future and the nation’s upcoming presidential elections in 2018?

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, shakes hands with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev prior to the Cabinet meeting in Moscow's Kremlin, Sept. 19. Photo: RIA Novosti

On Sept. 23, Russia’s Central Election Commission will announce the official results of the 2016 parliamentary elections that took place on Sept 18. However, it is already clear that the ruling United Russia party will win the majority of the votes, which leads to the following question: What does the party’s victory really mean for Russia’s political future and the upcoming presidential elections scheduled for 2018?

Over the past week, Russian experts, observers and business leaders tried to answer this question at events hosted by the Carnegie Moscow Center and the American Chamber of Commerce. There are two equal and opposing views on what the election results mean for Russia.

Some pundits assume that the authorities will keep tightening the screws, with the new parliament continuing to adopt restrictive laws and the economic situation worsening in the country. Meanwhile, other experts think otherwise: The new parliament will be able to meet economic and domestic challenges and won’t restrict political freedoms and human rights.

Also read: "Russia may not be so united behind United Russia"

At first glance, the assumption that the elections will have serious implications for Russia’s political future seems to be ungrounded, given the fact that this year’s elections to the State Duma, the lower chamber of the Russian parliament, didn’t change the current status quo. Moreover, there were no large-scale manipulations or evidence of vote-rigging. Political expert Dmitry Oreshkin said that the new head of the Central Election Committee, Ella Pamfilova, helped to make this year’s elections more transparent and “cleaner.” 

Yet the new parliament looks like the previous one, bringing together the same four parties – United Russia, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), the Communist Party and A Just Russia – to govern the country, with few complaints about any electoral violations.

In fact, experts agree that the liberal opposition lost the elections fairly because of the absence of a cohesive political platform. According to Denis Volkov, a sociologist and an expert at the Moscow-based Levada polling center, the opposition just lacked any compelling or persuasive campaign messages.

At the same time, the low electoral turnout contributed to the failure of the opposition. Partly, it stems from the fact that the elections were shifted from December to September. The liberals didn’t have enough time in the fall to attract voters, who were on vacation in summer and only returned with a few weeks left in the electoral campaign.  

Two electoral universes within one system  

From the point of view of its electoral constituencies, Russia is not homogenous. In fact, “there are two electoral universes” in the country, said Oreshkin. The first one includes Moscow, St. Petersburg and some other regions in central Russia. It shares European democratic values and votes with a great deal of freedom, with United Russia’s popularity gradually decreasing and the electoral turnout being very low in these regions.

At the same time, the second electoral universe comprises more than 20 Russian regions, including Chechnya, the Kemerovo Region, Crimea and others. These regions tend to follow the Soviet or “state corporatist” style, with the people ordered to vote for specific parties and candidates. United Russia garners more than 60 percent of the vote, its political rankings grow and it performs well in terms of the electoral turnout in such regions - the so-called “zones of peculiar electoral culture,” as Oreshkin refers to them.

“All this reveals the social and cultural split within Russian society. While people in European Russia want one thing, people in the zones of peculiar electoral culture” prefer the other thing,” he warns, adding that the results in the regions with the Soviet electoral style might be rigged.

However, Volkov doesn’t agree. The high turnout in the regions and the favorable ratings for United Russia doesn’t necessarily mean that people vote against their will. They could really support the ruling party, he said during the discussion at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

What to expect from the new parliament?

While the elections won’t change the status quo, experts believe that they will have an impact on Russia’s political future and the 2018 presidential campaign.

Carnegie Moscow Center expert Andrei Kolesnikov is not optimistic about Russia’s political future. His pessimism stems from the fact that the Russian liberal opposition is not represented in the current edition of the State Duma. That’s why, he argues, the Russian parliament will be become what he calls “The Mad Printer 2.0” [“The Mad Printer” is the nickname of the State Duma for its abundance of hastily adopted prohibitive measures – Editor’s note]. And the fact that single-mandate candidates from different parties received the seats in the new Duma is not a game changer at all, because many of them are affiliated with United Russia.

Also read: "What to expect from the 2016 Russian parliamentary elections"

“The next Duma will be worse than the previous one,” he said during the discussion at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “There will be many more restrictive and senseless laws. This is the logic of any authoritarian regime.”

In contrast, Dmitry Orlov, the director of the Agency for Political and Economic Communication, argues that the ruling party “will be more respectable and decent.” It will expand its planning horizon to implement economic and political reforms. So, it doesn’t make sense to be aggressive, when it won the support from the majority. 

However, Oreshkin doesn’t agree. He warns that the results of the elections send the wrong message to the authorities and create the illusion of political stability, thus spurring complacency within the political elites. The danger is that the Kremlin receives the signal that it is following the right direction, which means it will keep sticking to its current course: It may waver only between tightening the screws and shaking up the political deck.

However, this perception is false and misleading, according to Oreshkin. From an outside perspective, it looks like a sign of victory, but from the inside, the system seems to be coming apart at the seams. The authorities are misled or they just don’t understand the real implications of the low electoral turnout, which is not a good sign in the long run at all, warns Oreshkin.    

What does the low turnout really mean?

Indeed, the fact that people didn’t come to the polling stations means that apathy in Russia is increasing, with voters disappointed with politicians and the State Duma, which is not the decision-maker in the country. This accounts for the very low turnout of the elections (less than 50 percent throughout the country).

The voters just don’t care about the elections and this apathy could be very different in its nature, argues Kolesnikov. The first type of apathy is common for those Russians who live in the regions — they just vote randomly without caring much about the results and the parties for which they vote.

The second type of apathy comes from the protest electorate in Moscow, St. Petersburg and the country’s other central cities. These voters are hopelessly disappointed with the Russian political system and, particularly, the State Duma itself. They believe that they won’t change the situation and won’t be able to influence the results of the elections by going to the polling station. And such apathy is not a good sign for Russia’s political future, because implicitly, it creates conditions for the adoption of restrictive laws.

Kolesnikov believes that the victory of United Russia is a quasi-success because the ruling party represents about one-fourth of the Russian population and “this may bring about serious problems” in the future.

“The results of the elections are a mix of hypnosis and auto-training. The hypnosis is for the population; the auto-training is for the authorities themselves,” the expert said, pointing out that the demand for paternalism in Russian society had a big impact on the results of the elections and overshadowed people’s concerns over the country’s economic challenges.

Read the interview with Leonid Gozman: "What do the Kremlin and the Russian opposition have in common?"

The narrative of Crimea’s incorporation into Russia and the recognition of Russia as a great power are behind the victory of the United Russia party. No wonder, then, many Russians voted for the ruling party, says Kolesnikov.

Alexander Shokhin, the president of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RSPP), echoes this view. He sees the United Russia victory as “decisive” and this is the result of the Crimea consensus and the approval of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s policy by the population. It also stems from the West’s tough policy toward Moscow, because it forces ordinary Russians to unite around their national leader and the ruling party. In this regard, the confrontation between Russia and the West might indirectly contribute to the victory of Putin in 2018, suggested Shokhin at the Sept. 22 Annual Business and Investment Conference, organized by American Chamber of Commerce in central Moscow.

Links between the Duma and presidential elections

The fact the elections results maintain the political status quo reveals a dangerous trend: It creates a fragile system of political equilibrium, in which everybody is afraid of conducting decisive reforms and measures due to the fear of making a mistake. Any mistake could worsen one’s positions within the system of power, argues Kolesnikov.

“The decision-making process is postponed because of the fear of committing a mistake,” Kolesnikov said. It is because the priority for the Kremlin is stability. When politicians are looking for stability, it means that they are not ready for decisive measures.

Boris Titov, Russia’s business ombudsman and the leader of the Party of Growth (which failed to win more than 3 percent of the vote in the elections), echoes Kolesnikov’s view. Russia needs to be more decisive and it has to take more risks in the future to foster economic growth, he said during the American Chamber of Commerce’s conference in Moscow.

 According to him, diversifying the economy and overcoming the long-standing economic crisis is key to maintaining stability in the country, especially before the 2018 presidential elections. He argues that Russia should take risks and replace “sluggish defensive [economic] policy” with a “more offensive and even aggressive one.”

Also read: "Russians share their views on parliamentary elections"

At the same time, Orlov believes that the 2016 State Duma elections are “an attempt to reset the support of the post-Crimea majority” and persuade voters to elect Putin once again in 2018. Yet earning such support and making the elections more legitimate require a higher electoral turnout, which might be difficult given the current economic situation and widespread political apathy among the population.

Orlov is sure that it won’t be a major obstacle for Putin and the turnout will be high, because Russians look at the presidential elections more seriously. Moreover, Putin’s approval rankings are always high, and that guarantees a certain level of turnout.

However, Oreshkin thinks otherwise. The turnout will depend on “what will happen in the country over the next two years.” After all, Putin has a penchant for showing off his heroic deeds before the population. So, the results and the turnout of the upcoming elections depend on the president’s future decisions.