At the September 18th Russian parliamentary elections, the ruling United Russia party increased its vote to 54%, guaranteeing it a constitutional majority of 343 seats in the 450-member lower chamber. The other parties represented in the previous parliament—Russian Communist Party (13.5%), the Liberal Democratic Party (13.3%), and Fair Russia (6.2%)—will remain there. None of the extra-parliamentary parties such as Yabloko and PARNAS managed to pass the 5% barrier. Perhaps the most telling number, however, was the turnout: 48%, the lowest ever in Russia’s parliamentary history.
The most inappropriate reaction to these so-called elections is disenchantment with their outcome. Was anyone really enchanted by them? I can understand the pessimism of moderate liberals, for whom the procedure of voting is democracy’s alpha and omega, but a “constitutional change of power” is the ultimate political daydream. Even smart liberals must realize that today’s Duma is not a parliament, just as Russia is not a republic. What, then, are we to make of elections to a body that does not form the cabinet, cannot impeach the president, and, most important, gave up any pretensions to power long ago? What is demonstrated by so-called elections to a body in whose necessity over forty percent of respondents have doubts, according to opinion polls? What does it mean when people vote for parties that in their vast majority are flimflam organizations imitating political pluralism?
Nothing sounded more out of tune in the opposition’s rhetoric of recent months than the campaign slogans of liberals, hoping to cross the five-percent threshold, about effecting a “change of power” by dropping a ballot into a ballot box. Perhaps the statement made by Ella Pamfilova, chair of the Russian Central Electoral Commission, that she was “really, really sorry” not a single non-parliamentary party made it into the Duma, reflects not only her own opinion but also that of her bosses. A few rebellious voices would not have harmed a body one of its former speakers infamously dubbed “not a place for discussion.” They would have made the bureaucracy’s imitation of democracy slightly more believable.
But let us get back to the question of what these so-called elections show us. Maybe, at least, they are a cross section of public opinion, a sincere manifestation of confidence in the regime or, as the opposition is fond of claiming, an index of the populace’s “zombification”? No, they are none of these things, and that, perhaps, is the most troubling news for the ruling elite.
If, after several years of severe economic crisis, and amidst a record-low turnout, a party headed by an unpopular prime minister garners even more votes than it did in 2011, it means that elections to the Duma have finally shed their remaining links with any known social reality. It would be more soothing for the Kremlin if the votes had been divvied up more evenly among the four pro-regime parties. That would have been a sign of confidence in the political system. If Russians had sought an alternative within the current system by voting for the Communists or any other pro-Kremlin party that would have told us that faith in the Putin regime is indeed strong.
But people who vote for United Russia in 2016 are not voting for the government’s policies, the annexation of Crimea or even Putin. They vote not because they expect the elections will change things for the better, and not because they are blinded by propaganda or are especially fond of government officials. They fear a change for the worse and take part in a pre-programmed ritual, thus hoping to prevent the collapse of their usual lives. In its own way, this choice is rational, although it smacks of pessimism and conservatism. People are clinging with all their might to a crumbling stability. But what will happen when there is nothing more to cling to?
Some of the voters who did not go to the polls could have been guided by similar motives. It would be wrong to interpret high absenteeism unambiguously as passive protest. The majority realizes nothing actually depends on Duma elections. Superstitiously, involuntarily or habitually, some partake in this ritual exorcism of hardship and troubles. Others fail to partake in the ritual out of laziness, apathy or contempt. Only an indoctrinated minority literally believes in the campaign slogans.
So the only information the powers that be and we can extract from the election results is that the country is not in the midst of a revolution, and the supplies of public apathy on which the system depends have not run out yet. But as tool of political leverage, a reflection of the confidence the masses have in the ruling class, and even as a means of studying public opinion, the Duma elections have shown their uselessness. Like routine vote rigging, their outcome is an indication of Putinism’s degradation as a political system rather than its stability.
Translated by the Russian Reader
Ivan Ovsyannikov is a writer and union activist, member of the Russian socialist movement, editor of Interregional Workers’ Association’s (MPRA) magazine Union Navigator.