Groundhog day.

Photographer: Aleksey Nikolsky/AFP/Getty Images

Russia Has the Most Boring Election of 2016

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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The thrilling spectacles offered by the U.S. presidential election, the U.K. referendum on leaving the European Union and even Austria's cliffhanger presidential vote have overshadowed an election campaign in Russia, which will get a new parliament on Sept. 18. That's because, even though they have all the the trappings of democracy, the Russian elections are mostly theater, whose actors are shadows from the country's brief experiment with competitive politics.

In theory, the elections shouldn't be boring. The previous ones, in 2011, gave rise to the most meaningful and vigorous protests against Vladimir Putin's corrupt system of his more than 15 years in power. Then, tens of thousands of Muscovites took to the streets to protest what they saw as the falsification of vote results: Statistical analysis suggested that United Russia, the pro-Putin party, owed its majority to widespread ballot-stuffing. 

QuickTake Vladimir Putin

It even appeared briefly that the Kremlin -- occupied then by Putin's stand-in, Dmitri Medvedev -- was unsettled enough to change a few things. Gubernatorial elections, which had been abolished, were allowed again, and the authorities took care to make voting more transparent for the 2012 presidential election, organizing a live video feed from every polling station and making sure not to obstruct observers' work. Putin, however, saw the protests as a U.S.-inspired threat of a revolution like the one would shake Ukraine in 2013-2014. As soon as his third presidential term began -- after he pulled off an undeniable electoral triumph -- he started tightening the screws, using the parliament -- the State Duma -- to pass legislation that sharply limited the freedoms of assembly and expression. The chamber came to be known as an "amok printer" because of the speed at which it spewed out repressive laws.

In September, this Duma will be replaced by a new one, and if there's any vote-rigging, it will be much harder to notice than in 2011. Putin doesn't want to be accused of cheating. He wants a clear, convincing victory and a parliament filled with loyalists or representatives of tried and tested parties that have long traded any principles for the benefits of official recognition, public funding and a chance to make money from industry lobbyists. And that is exactly what Putin will get, despite some rather cynical attempts to make the race look real.

Earlier this year, United Russia held what it called "primaries" to determine the list of people who would run in the actual election. The party said 10.5 million people took part, even though the results of the mock election weren't binding and the party hierarchy -- meaning the Kremlin -- determined the final list of candidates. Russia even has its own prediction market, set up by a pro-Kremlin polling service; United Russia is the favorite, of course.

Recent polls by the independent Levada Center put the party in the lead, too: 55 percent of those who intend to vote are for it. According to the most recent Levada poll, only three other parties stand a solid chance of getting into parliament: The Communists, still led by Gennady Zyuganov, who almost beat Boris Yeltsin in the 1996 presidential election; the misnamed Liberal Democratic Party of the populist Vladimir Zhirinovsky; and Fair Russia, an amorphous center-left force set up artificially by the Kremlin to balance "center-right" United Russia. Three relatively liberal parties are running, but none has more than 1 percent support. The one with the best chances -- experts predict it may get up to 3 percent -- is Yabloko, led by Grigory Yavlinsky, another 1996 presidential candidate. Other tired "faces" of Russia's battered liberalism, Vladimir Ryzhkov and Irina Khakamada, are running, too.

Absent from the list of candidates is Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption activist who has probably done the most to revive Russian politics and who won more than a quarter of the vote in 2013 in a Moscow mayoral election, conceding defeat only to United Russia heavyweight Sergei Sobyanin. Navalny has been convicted twice on trumped-up charges to disqualify him from running.

This week, he posted the best description of what's wrong with the 2016 campaign:

It's 1993. I have just graduated from high school. I am 17. A State Duma election is on. Yavlinsky, Khakadada, Ryzhkov, Zyuganov, Zhirinovsky are taking part. I am interested in politics but I'm not allowed to take part in the election. 
23 years have gone by. It's 2016. A State Duma election is on. Yavlinsky, Khakadada, Ryzhkov, Zyuganov, Zhirinovsky are taking part. I am interested in politics but I'm not allowed to take part in the election.

The stasis is obvious to everyone, not just to Navalny. According to the Levada Center, 42 percent of Russians believe the election will be a mere imitation of political struggle. The turnout will probably be extremely low; if answers by those who do not plan to vote are taken into account, United Russia's 55 percent shrinks to 35 percent.

Putin has created a political climate and a system that make it unnecessary to rig the election. The news media are tightly controlled. The few relatively independent outlets are regularly shown that they have to toe the line. In a speech to a recent United Russia convention, Putin explained how he sees campaigning in today's Russia, surrounded by enemies and saddled with Western sanctions:

The most dangerous thing today is to speculate on the current difficulties. I'm not talking about criticism of the authorities -- it's necessary, a must-have. And of course it will be. Election time, by the way, is when criticism is the toughest and most direct, and that's very good, it's normal and in most cases it's definitely useful for the cause. I'm talking about something else -- lies and the manipulation of facts, the direct betrayal of the country's interests, the empty promises that are worse than any treachery because they aren't backed by anything except a desire to destabilize the situation, split society, grab power at any cost.

Putin may be impressed by Donald Trump, but, judging by this tirade, he wouldn't have been allowed to run for the State Duma. No one particularly colorful is. As Fyodor Krasheninnikov noted in a column for the daily Vedomosti, business figures are remarkably scarce on major party lists -- a major change from previous elections when wealthy Russians tried to get into parliament to obtain legislative immunity, the chance to lobby their business interests and the status that allowed them to get closer to big state procurement contracts. 

"The lists are full of party functionaries, public servants and pro-government activists -- people who clearly won't be independent," Krasheninnikov wrote. "With all the formal and informal restrictions that exist today, the prospect of having to declare all their property, getting out of business and coming under sanctions of some sort has become an important reason for many to dodge political careers."

In other words, Putin has steamrolled the political landscape so thoroughly that only an ossified, bored, boring "political elite" from the 1990s and his own grey-faced loyalists of a more recent vintage can get elected. If the Russian leader needs an "amok printer" again -- or if he suddenly changes his mind and wants to flirt with the West, or with liberal economic, again -- the next State Duma will be as docile as the last one. 

In other countries, political elites may be quaking in their boots, fearing a populist rebellion. By rights, Russia should be among them: This is the first election since the 1990s taking place during an economic downturn, and the people who run the country are unspeakably corrupt. But Russians clearly are not tired enough of the same old faces, names and policies to demand change.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net