Wearied by the coronavirus, frustrated by stagnating wages, impatient with unchecked corruption, Russians have begun voting for a new lower house of parliament, with the political future of President Vladimir Putin looming in the background.
All 450 seats in the State Duma are up for grabs in the election, which is being held over three days -- from September 17-19. Election officials said the shift was needed in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has ravaged Russia despite it being the first country in the world to approve a vaccine.
But opposition activists and some liberal lawmakers said the move was part of a series of efforts by the Kremlin to manipulate turnout and engineer a plausible majority victory for the ruling party, United Russia.
Authorities have also moved to block the election’s biggest wild card: the Smart Voting initiative backed by jailed corruption crusader Aleksei Navalny, which aims to erode United Russia’s stranglehold on national politics.
"It is the Russian regime, rather than the public, which needs the elections," Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, said in an online commentary. “They serve to validate the regime’s legality and legitimacy, and also keep the so-called majority relatively mobilized.”
Preelection polls by the independent Levada Center show a majority of Russians were unhappy with how the Duma was functioning.
Polls show even deeper problems with United Russia, a nominally independent party that is in fact closely linked to guidance from the Kremlin and the powerful presidential administration.
United Russia holds a supermajority in the chamber, but its popularity is currently the lowest in the nearly two decades it has been in existence, saddled with the widespread belief that the party is a vehicle for graft and patronage.
Even the state-run pollster VTsIOM found United Russia’s support hovering around 29 percent.
By contrast, Putin, who is not a member, retains wide popularity and has no genuine political rival.
However, his popularity has slipped in recent years, driven down partly due to sweeping pension reform passed after his reelection in 2018, and perceptions that high-level corruption among government insiders is rampant and unchecked.
Wages have stagnated for a wide swath of the population, as the economy struggles with Western economic sanctions, higher taxes, and mounting inflation.
"I count on your responsible, balanced, patriotic civic position," Putin said in a video address published on the Kremlin website on the eve of the voting.
Three other parties currently have seats in the Duma (plus two seats held by lawmakers from two obscure parties).
The strongest is the Communist Party, which retains a strong following among older Russians. The two others are the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, headed by the flamboyant Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and A Just Russia, which this year merged with another relatively unknown party headed by a popular nationalist writer.
All three parties are nominally in opposition to United Russia, but in reality, they rarely vote against majority initiatives or those explicitly lobbied for by the Kremlin.
United Russia’s dismal approval ratings have posed a challenge for Kremlin domestic policy advisers, who fear the party could lose its supermajority.
A loss of a supermajority could make it more difficult for the Duma to ram through major legislation, such as constitutional amendments. That, in turn, would potentially complicate the run-up to the 2024 presidential election, when Putin’s current term is scheduled to end.
The Duma last year passed constitutional amendments that opened the door for Putin to stay in power beyond 2024. He has not indicated if he will.
Still, half of the Duma’s 450 seats are apportioned by party list, as opposed to single-mandate districts, which gives United Russia a formidable advantage.
“The Kremlin will get what it wanted: the Duma as an institute of support for a political system that is entering a stage not of transition, but effectively another reset in 2024,” Kolesnikov said.
Navalny, who is the Kremlin’s most potent domestic critic, has pushed Smart Voting as a way to chip away at United Russia’s dominance. The initiative helps guide voters to support candidates who have the best chance of defeating United Russia candidates, even if the candidate comes from the current major political parties, like the Communists.
Regulators have throttled the effort, ordering online app stores to block Russians from downloading the app, and blocking servers.
Still, Navalny’s team on September 15 managed to release a slate of Smart Voting-endorsed candidates -- 1,234 in all, for both the Duma and regional legislatures. The overwhelming majority of the endorsed candidates were from the Communist Party.
Overnight, regulators appeared to briefly block the Google Doc app nationwide, in a bid to stop the circulation of Navalny’s printed list of Smart Voting-endorsements.
Navalny has been prison since January; his foundation has been designated an “extremist organization,” which bars it from participating in elections.
Russians have also been frustrated by the cycles of lockdowns and conflicting public-health guidance regarding the coronavirus. The country is going through a third wave of infections and deaths; nearly 1.6 million cases have been reported since the pandemic began, and nearly 28,100 deaths have been reported.
The country’s vaccination effort is flagging badly, with many people deeply skeptical, despite Russia approving the world’s first COVID-19 vaccine last summer.
Aside from the decision to hold voting over three days, the Central Elections Commission has made other tweaks to voting rules, such as sharply limiting international observers, limiting live-stream camera feeds from polling stations, and pushing for people in some regions to vote electronically, rather than in person.
Governors in several regions will also be chosen in the voting, including the head of the Far Eastern region of Khabarovsk where the Kremlin ousted the popular local governor last year, prompting months of street protests.
Chechnya’s strongman leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, is also on the ballot, though he faces no real challenge to reelection.