With much of the world focused on the US Presidential election, few have been speaking about the election for the State Duma of the Russian Federation which takes place in September of this year.
This election is critical insofar as it serves as a referendum on the current state of Russian politics which have changed a great deal since the last Duma election in 2011.
Since 2011, Russia has seen its presence in international affairs expand. Russia’s international voice is heard louder than it was in 2011 and Russia’s ability to influence world events has been greatly magnified. In 2011 the uneasy and functionally inaccurate borders of post-Soviet Ukraine was an issue reserved for academic circles and those who have long taken a passion in a more just settlement to post-Soviet border issues, but it was not a mainstay of debate in Russia nor was it a dot on the radar in international discourse.
This of course has all changed dramatically and now politicians in the west who just three years ago didn’t know if Crimea was a seafood dish, the new Volkswagen model or a historically Russian peninsula of great cultural importance, now talk about it endlessly.
Likewise, in 2011 Syria was a unified country. However shortly thereafter tensions exploded which have resulted in a once small Al-Qaeda affiliate proclaiming itself the Islamic State, and ruling much of Syria and Iraq. Russia is now directly involved in the war in Syria after the government of Syria asked for assistance in fighting theocratic terrorism.
Likewise, whereas in 2011 Turkey still had vague dreams of embracing the ‘European dream’, now Turkey has forged closer ties with Russia, after of course committing both a crime and a blunder in shooting down a Russian fighter jet, which brought Russo-Turkish relations to their lowest point in decades.
Looming over all these conflicts is the the rise of the BRICS bloc, and in particular Russia’s ever closer relationship with China, which is challenging the unipolar world which most in 2011 still took for granted as a sustained inevitability.
Consequently, Russian voters have much more to vote for than they had in the last election.
Opinion polls show that none of the eligible parties currently without representation in the Duma will make it into the Duma despite the lowering of the thresholds which took place in 2012. Instead, it is the number of votes/seats received by parties that already are in the Duma which is the key issue in the election.
The governing party, United Russia, look set once again to come out on top. The increased popularity of Vladimir Putin, Russia’s President, who has the official endorsement of United Russia, will likely be reflected in the election in a higher vote for United Russia. This despite corruption scandals and United Russia’s behaviour during certain regional elections.
The Communist Party looks set to remain in second place. However one should look out for the changing demographics of the Communist vote. Traditionally Gennady Zyuganov’s Communists have attracted votes from older generations with nostalgic appeals to the USSR. However, due to Russia’s decreased dependence on western imports due to the sanctions and the oil price fall, long time Communist calls to be more economically self-reliant and to focus on trade with partners who have respected Russia’s traditional global role, will probably now be taken more seriously by younger voters who previously may not have understood frequent Communist warnings about the need to be less dependent on the West. There is therefore a good chance that the Communist vote will increase as compared with 2011 and that the Communists will get a larger share of the votes cast by younger people.
The race for the third party in the Duma is the most interesting. It’s a two horse race between A Just Russia and the LDPR.
The LDPR is likely to capture third place for a variety of reasons. The LDPR has made foreign affairs and finding a just settlement for Russians living in the “near abroad” who have been deprived since 1991 of their basic civil and human rights a central pillar of their policy. LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky has also made Russian relations with the Arab World, Asia, Iran and Turkey a central theme of his speeches and writings.
Since 2011 these matters have gone from peripheral issues to ones at the heart of Russia’s international relations. Just as the Communists accurately predicted the importance of economic self-reliance, so the LDPR correctly predicted the potential for volatility and violence in Ukraine, the importance of good relations with Turkey, the need for Russia to take an independent position from the West in respect of relations with Arab counties, and the potential for trade with Iran.
For all of these reasons the LDPR’s policies seem more relevant than those of A Just Russia which more or less acts as the socialist conscience of United Russia, supporting many of their programmes whilst arguing for a more socially oriented element in legislation.
Lastly, the LDPR may benefit from the fact that charisma and flamboyance seem to be back in fashion globally. From Rodrigo Duterte in Philippines to Boris Johnson in Britain and to Donald Trump in America, being outspoken is now being taken seriously. Some in Russia tend to fear that Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s personal characteristics make him a less than desirable figure to present on the world’s stage. However with other even more outspoken leaders appearing in important global positions, this can no longer be the case. It just so happens that Zhirinovsky is highly educated in world history and foreign affairs, far more so than certain other politicians in other countries who are similarly prone to dramatic rhetoric.
As for smaller parties like PARNAS and Yabloko, the popularity of such groups is negligible in Russia and very few commentators believe they will secure enough votes to receive any seats in the Duma.
All in all Russia’s election like previous ones will be an interesting exercise in the democracy many in the west assume Russia does not have.