Politics 27 September 2021

How United Russia won the State Duma elections

Online voting turned out to be the biggest issue at last week’s parliamentary elections. But there are different opinions about its effect: some experts are certain it was used to carry out mass electoral fraud; others believe it just meant state-sector employees voted online for the ruling United Russia party. After testing online voting in six Russian regions in these elections, the authorities are now ready to roll out the scheme across the whole country.

  • The announcement of the results of online voting in Moscow was unexpectedly delayed for 14 hours, which led to opposition candidates in the capital winning at polling stations but then suffering a crushing defeat online. The situation was similar in the party list battle between the Communist Party and United Russia; here the gap between the two increased threefold after online voting was included.
  • The Communist Party has refused to recognize the election results and hundreds of its supporters rallied in downtown Moscow on Saturday to protest the vote. Colleagues of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny also blamed online voting for subverting the election. Sergei Shpilkin, an electoral fraud expert, told Meduza that online voting was “absolutely evil”.
  • However, Moscow’s election observation headquarters carried out a vote recount and said it found no signs of hacking or ballot stuffing. Alexei Venediktov, the chief editor of liberal radio station Ekho Moskvy who headed the observation headquarters, insisted the difference in online and offline results was because opposition parties urged their supporters to vote offline. It’s certainly true that the Communist Party advised supporters “to choose only the normal way of voting – exclusively on the ballot paper”. Navalny’s supporters also warned of the dangers of online voting.
  • Venediktov received a lot of criticism for his role in defending online voting and is increasingly a divisive figure for liberals. Not only is Ekho Moskvy financed by state-owned gas giant Gazprom, but he himself was implicated in the Russian version of #MeToo last year. When the BBC Russian service profiled Venediktov in response to the allegations of sexual harassment, he was portrayed as occupying a unique position in Russian politics — a kind of bridge between the authorities and the opposition.

The election results

The Central Election Committee announced final results Friday with United Russia winning 324 seats (out of 450) and 49.8 percent of the vote — despite opinion polls showing its support had dropped to 30 percent in recent weeks. However, this was not apparently a reason for celebration: neither President Vladimir Putin, nor official party leader Dmitry Medvedev, nor ministers Sergei Shoigu and Sergey Lavrov (who led the United Russia party list), turned up at party headquarters on election night.

  • The Communist Party won 57 seats, A Just Russia – For Truth got 27, the Liberal Democrats got 21, and New People won 13. Five self-nominated candidates were elected and two small parties – Rodina and Party of Growth – got one deputy each. The turnout was reported at 51.72 percent (109.2 million people are registered to vote). There has been no minimum turnout for parliamentary elections since 2006.
  • The appearance of new political parties in the lower house of Russia’s parliament – for the first time in 18 years – is one of the big stories of this election. The most noticeable is New People, which has a liberal manifesto of populist economic cliches and utopian ideas about tax reform. Their key economic proposal is to introduce a single turnover tax on businesses while eliminating sales tax, income tax and insurance payments. In its first year, the new tax would be set at 7 percent, dropping by 0.5 percent in each subsequent year until it settles at a final level of 5 percent. One economist interviewed by The Bell described New People’s program as a “pot-pourri of business cliches”.
  • Nine regions held governor elections at the same time as the parliamentary vote. These did not lead to any surprises: each race was won by the incumbent. They include Liberal Democrat Mikhail Degtyarev, who took 57 percent of the votes in Khabarovsk Region despite widespread hostility to his appointment, which followed protests over the arrest of previous governor Sergei Furgal.

Why the world should care: Anger over online voting could spark protests. And that, in turn, brings the risk of further repression against an already beleaguered opposition and independent media.