On reading Western commentary on the upcoming Russian Duma elections, I realized that they can’t decide between two narratives: either the popularity of United Russia is sinking faster than Herman Cain’s following his sex abuse scandals, thus meaning that it will manipulate the votes to get its desired majority; or Russian elections are complete shams anyway (as we all know) and thus irrelevant, which does away with the inconvenient fact that for all the liberals’ harping about United Russia being the “party of crooks and thieves” consistently more than 50% of Russians still insist on voting for it.
The reality is quite a bit simpler than these convoluted attempts to discredit Russian democracy (thought some are quite simple and transparent in their propaganda: given the data from opinion polls, it is hard to believe Miriam Elder, who wrote in the Guardian that when she asked a classroom of 22 students whether they would vote against United Russia, “every single student raises their hand”). As I wrote back in July, opinion polls of voter preferences closely correlate to election results. And unfortunately for some it just so happens that the “decline” of United Russia’s popularity is really little more than the product of fevered imaginations: as you can see from the list of opinion polls on Wikipedia, United Russia’s share of the vote (excluding the undecided and those who won’t vote) has stayed largely steady and well ahead of all the other parties.
As you can see from the graph of Levada polls above, United Russia remains head and shoulders above the KPRF (Communists) and LDPR (populists). The only major change of recent months – far surpassing the largely insignificant fluctuations in UR’s dominant support levels – is that Fair Russia looks that it will overcome the 7% barrier. Before its 5-10% point fall in popularity, UR looked like it would retain a slight constitutional majority, from today’s 70%, to something like 67%, by virtue of Fair Russia not getting in due to its low support levels. However, the late night (and unexpected) increase in Fair Russia’s popularity means that it is increasingly likely that it WILL clear the 7% barrier and get into the Duma again, meaning that United Russia will be left with with something like 55% of the seats. I.e., a reduction from 315/450 seats to 253/450 seats, which means a loss of its current constitutional majority. It will remain comfortably dominant, just not quite as overweeningly so as before. The two liberal parties remain irrelevant: Yabloko for being pathetic (their unstinting support for Euro-integration especially doesn’t look good now on the background of the current Euro crisis), and Right Cause are neoliberal ideologues who’ve Russians already had a lifetime of in the 1990′s.
Fun tidbit: UR has a good sense of humor, as shown in its campaign video above (h/t A Good Treaty). Proudly embracing Navalny’s “party of crooks and thieves” accolade to “demonstrate” its inclusiveness and the envy it arouses within lazy malcontents: ballsy, and effective.
Will there be cheating? Obviously, there will be some violations and falsifications. There ALWAYS are in practically any democracy. It’s fairly predictable (based on past history) that many Western journalists and election will cry foul regardless, because they suffer from Putin Derangement Syndrome, believe that anybody who doesn’t put Western interests before their own country’s must necessarily be a dictator and a kleptocrat, and thus disparage UR as an authoritarian party that stuffs ballots as the only way to retain power against all those Russians who earn for the kind of true democracy enjoyed by Libya and Egypt. But these are dishonest and mendacious arguments as long as election results remain in line with opinion polls – which, on past experience, they will be. Bearing in mind that voting intentions for United Russia have fluctuated from 49% to 60% in the past two months – and for the entire past year, for that matter – as long as its election result remains in the 50%’s, it will be very hard to build a credible case that it did electoral rigging. If it scores SIGNIFICANTLY more than 60%, say 65% or more, only then could it be said with some certainty that there was systemic manipulation (I will also acknowledge that and burn the Putin portrait on my wall). Likewise if it polls significantly less than 50%, say 45%, one can then say: WTF? Is the Kremlin rigging votes against itself?
The eternal question of whether Russia’s elections are fair (they are quite obviously free as far as such things realistically go in most of the world) is a bit too for this post. The article on whether Russian elections are rigged quoted in this piece has many good comments on that topic.