From RBC Daily, Sept. 21, 2021, p. 4. Condensed text:

The fifth party

The Duma elections were spread over three days this year, taking place from Sept. 17–19. The three-day voting procedure was first tested last summer, in the plebiscite on the constitutional amendments, and then again on Election Day in September 2020.

The biggest surprise of this year’s elections was that a fifth party, Noviye lyudi [New People], made it into the Duma with 5.33%. Russia has had a four-party system since 2003, with the same parties getting elected to the State Duma every time: United Russia, the Russian Federation Communist Party (RFCP), the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) and A Just Russia (except that in 2003 it was the Rodina [Motherland] bloc that got the fourth spot). The last time the parliament had over four parties was in 1999. At the time, there were six parties represented in the State Duma: RFCP, the Unity bloc, the Fatherland/All Russia bloc, the [LDPR leader Vladimir] Zhirinovsky bloc, Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces (URF).

After the URF and Yabloko failed to clear the 5% threshold in the 2003 elections, neither party has been able to make a comeback. Now, for the first time in a long time, there will be a party in the Duma that positions itself as a prodemocracy force.

The New People party was founded last year with assistance from the Kremlin’s domestic politics division. Faberlic [cosmetics company] founder Andrei Nechayev was elected the leader of the party. On election day in 2020, New People received enough votes to make it into the legislative assemblies of four Russian provinces, which means its candidates can now run in Duma elections without collecting the required number of their supporters’ signatures first. (If a political party is represented in at least one provincial legislative assembly, under the current rules it is no longer required to collect signatures to be qualified for parliamentary elections.) . . .

United Russia’s performance.

United Russia has retained a constitutional majority in the Duma. According to preliminary reports, its party ticket received 49.8% of the vote. In addition, its candidates carried 198 single-seat constituencies out of the 217 where the party had a member running. The overall turnout in the election was 51.68%.

Speaking at a special workshop for vice-governors in charge of politics in their respective provinces in January, the president’s first deputy chief of staff Sergei Kiriyenko said the ideal result would be for United Russia to get 45% for its party ticket given a turnout of 45%. Sources in the ruling party explained to RBC that in order to retain a constitutional majority (at least 300 seats), the party needed to get 110 seats from the party ticket and another 190 seats from single-seat constituencies.

Based on the current estimates, it looks as if United Russia will get 126 seats from the party ticket. Together with the seats won in single-seat constituencies, this gives United Russia a total of 324 or 325 seats.

This is a little less than what the party got in the 2016 elections. Back then, United Russia got a total of 343 seats, winning in 203 single-seat constituencies and getting 54.2% for its party ticket.

Performance of the parliamentary opposition parties.

The Communists had significantly better results this time, getting 18.96% as opposed to 13.3% in 2016. The current number is closer to what the party got in the 2011 elections, which was 19.2%. That year was marked by mass protests, and it was because of protest votes that the RFCP got a major boost then.

This year, the RFCP once again was able to benefit from protest votes. For example, the party spoke out against mandatory vaccination, an unpopular measure with many of the Russian people.

There are a few provinces where the RFCP received more votes than United Russia: for example, Yakutia, Khabarovsk Territory and the Nenets Autonomous District (NAD). This is the second time the NAD has voted against the wishes of the Kremlin in the past 12 months. In the vote on the constitutional amendments, the NAD was the only province in Russia which had more nays than yeas.

The A Just Russia/For the Truth party, which was formed by merging three parties (A Just Russia, For the Truth and Patriots of Russia) did not benefit much from the merger. A Just Russia alone received 6.22% in the previous elections. This time, the new party got 7.45%.

The LDPR had the worst performance among all the parliamentary parties. It had the worst result since 2007 [when United Russia first took a constitutional majority – Trans.]. Back then, the LDPR got 8.14%. This time, they got 7.5%. The last time Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s party had a worse result was in 1999 (5.98%).

Based on preliminary reports, it looks like none of the remaining nine parties that participated in the elections reached the 3% barrier, which entitles a political party to government funding. The Party of Pensioners was closer than others with 2.5%. Yabloko finished seventh with 1.3% (versus 1.99% in 2016).

Added together, the parties that did not make it into the Duma received 8.85%. Their votes will be redistributed among the parliamentary parties proportionately to their results.

What do the election results tell us?

New People were able to make it into the Duma because voters wanted to see a new party. “The campaign was a standoff between new people and old people – in the Duma, on television, in the government, etc. Ideologically, they [New People – Ed.] could be anything. The only thing that mattered was that they were something new. And they had access to media, financial and administrative resources, so they were able to campaign without any problems,” says Vitaly Ivanov, an expert on province-level politics. He thinks that New People diverted some votes from all four parliamentary parties and that the party will be merely a branch of United Russia in the Duma, because it is obvious that the party was created by the Kremlin.

The RFCP had a good showing because “they look more convincing than others in the role of an opposition party.” “People who don’t like United Russia voted largely for the Communists, because [the Communists] are definitely more anti-Kremlin than the other parliamentary parties and they were certain to make it into the Duma,” Ivanov explains. The reason the LDPR did so poorly is because “the party and its leader are getting older,” according to Ivanov. “Say what you will about the RFCP, it is still a party based on an ideology, whereas the LDPR is a party built around the personality of their leader, and it’s getting feebler along with its leader. Zhirinovsky is no longer the firebrand he used to be, and this was very obvious to everyone on the campaign trail,” Ivanov says. The combined party of A Just Russia/For the Truth proved to be “a complete washout,” the expert says. “They merged two and a half parties together, but this didn’t make them any stronger and they failed to pool their voters,” the expert explains.

As far as United Russia is concerned, it was bolstered in retaining a constitutional majority by the fact that the elections continued for three days, according to Ivanov. “The party was able to mobilize its supporters,” he says. Giving up its constitutional majority would have been a step in the wrong direction. “This would be like ceding ground, and you can’t do that. Once you take something, you should never give it back,” Ivanov explains.

The three-day vote did help United Russia win a constitutional majority, confirms political analyst Aleksandr Pozhalov. “It made it easier to mobilize the voters with whom the Kremlin has some administrative leverage,” he says. As the second factor, Pozhalov points to the large number of votes from home. Also, there is still a huge turnout gap between areas with high levels of electoral mobilization and other territories, the expert explains.

According to Pozhalov, there were several factors that contributed to the success of New People. First, it was important to Sergei Kiriyenko, who oversees Russian politics in the Kremlin, to have “a party that would resonate with him personally” in the Duma, the expert says. New People is not a movement built around a particular ideology; it is a project created by a team of political consultants, a nice-looking brand. Even some of the leading pollsters helped hype it up by reporting a week before the elections that New People were likely to clear the electoral threshold and make it into the State Duma, Pozhalov explains. “I think this sent a message to the governors [that they should help New People get more votes in their provinces],” he adds.

Second, novelty played a role in New People making it into the parliament. “I don’t think that the people who voted for New People did so for ideological reasons. The only message that New People had was ‘We are different from everyone else,’ ” the expert says.

Pozhalov thinks that New People diverted some votes from the LDPR. “You can see this in the Far East,” he says. Some of the people who used to vote for the Liberal Democrats just for fun voted for New People this time. Other people who used to support the LDPR voted for the Communist Party because it appears to be the Kremlin’s primary opponent, Pozhalov thinks. “Zhirinovksy was underwhelming in this campaign. He looked obsolete,” the expert adds.