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14 June 2016

The Elections of 2016: Deceptive Predictability

One can expect surprises from the upcoming elections and this is why 

In September, regular elections to the lower house of parliament will be held in Russia. As recorded by sociological centres, despite the significant deterioration in living standards, geopolitical crisis and sanctions, the overall balance of political forces and citizens' preferences have not undergone significant changes. The United Russia party ranking remains high – at approximately 50 percent - and it seems nothing can shake its position. It appears that the party representation in the next Duma will not change: thus far, four parties have crossed the 5 percent threshold, mirroring the results of last year's elections. But is everything really so predictable, and should we expect a political setback before the State Duma election?

As stated by the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Centre (WCIOM) in early May, only the rating of “United Russia” has slightly grown in April compared to March, but other pre-election ratings of key parties remain relatively stable. In response to the question, “Who would you vote for if the election of members of the State Duma were to be held next Sunday?” 47.4 percent of respondents stated that they would vote for United Russia, 9.6 percent would vote for the Communist Party, 9.6 percent for the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, and 6.2 percent would elect ‘A Just Russia.’ At the same time, according to the Public Opinion Foundation, a third of Russians are not aware that State Duma elections will be held in September. Still, the majority is aware and ready to participate in the election. For now, 27 percent do not wish to vote. The Public Opinion Foundation (FOM), similarly to the WCIOM, draws attention to an increase in popularity of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, which even surpassed the Communists (the Liberal Democratic Party received 10 percent of the vote, while the Communist Party received 9 precent).

It seems that domestic political climate was stable until Levada-Centre’s new polls came in June: pollsters claim that the ruling parties’ rating has collapsed to 53 percent from 65 percent in January, and 59 percent in March).

Still it would seem that nothing portends trouble, fluctuations are seasonal, the political situation is fully under control, and the election results are predictable. Additionally, the independent Levada-Centre indicates that the potential for protest even fell slightly in April. But is it really as predictable as it might seem?

It is important to take into consideration several factors that create an essential element of unpredictability.

First is the decline in the political importance of opinion polls. It is not a question of confidence in the results of the polls by the WCIOM and FOM (which are linked to the government) - the results of the more independent Levada-Centre, as a whole, are not much different. Rather, it is the difficulty in measuring the true preferences of Russians under the conditions of the existing set of non-competitive political options: the pro-government centrist United Russia whose electoral potential is visibly much lower than Vladimir Putin's; the provocative, but in practice, constructive Liberal Democratic Party; A Just Russia which is losing face as it rid itself of its most prominent leaders after the mass protests of 2011-2012; and finally, the Communist Party, supported by a limited number of its core electorate.

This set of political options ‘marketed’ as a ‘legitimate choice’ does not take into account the electoral needs of those who do not approve of Putin's actions - according to a Levada Centre April survey, this non-approving group constituted 17 percent of those polled. We should note that under current political circumstances, a condition of access to legitimate forms of political participation is at least neutrality, or better still, a positive attitude to the Russian president. That 17 percent constitutes a fifth of Russia’s entire electorate.

The greatest level of political dissatisfaction was reached in late 2011 and early 2012, when the level of the disapproval of Putin’s actions stood at 34 - 36 percent. Currently, the president’s electoral position seems stronger, but there is a small detail deserving of attention: according to the Levada-Centre survey, 26 percent of respondents are afraid to express their own opinions “about the current situation in the country” in opinion polls. Nearly half of respondents believe that the majority of Russians “are reluctant to express their views” for “fear of negative consequences which they might face.” Aleksey Grazhdankin, deputy director of the Levada-Centre, told Kommersant that “[s]ometimes, in opinion polls, people express views which are more loyal to the authorities than they are in reality, but in fact, the margin of error is more or less 5 percent.”

The instability of electoral support of the Russian government is linked to a climate of government information dominance, or, the propaganda monopoly. Informational and political sterility eliminates actual and potential choice. The ‘there is no choice’ attitude is a deeply rooted and widespread mindset shared both by those who vote for the ruling party as well as those who vote for the opposition. The current electoral preferences of the population are locked in the delimited ‘black box’ of the existing political system - as per David Easton’s systems theory of political science developed some time ago. In this regard, opinion polls of sociological research centres are an attempt to explore ‘the output’ of the black box, but it would be a mistake to believe that they create an opportunity to look inside it. High ratings of the ruling party and the president are a reaction, and this is not tantamount to an attitude. And even if the reaction remains stable, it does not guarantee the stability of the attitude towards Putin and the ruling party in the near future.

A factor greatly intensifying unpredictability is the increase in the oppressive function of the state. The current model of preparation for elections implies stability and legitimacy. However, the interests of political advisors and law enforcers can be quite far apart. The current pronounced coercive approach increases the risk of adverse events, such as the threat of arrest of Aleksey Navalny, a forceful dispersal of protest actions, or even small rallies; attempts to assassinate opposition leaders and acts of aggression against them, as well as the banning  of opposition organisations (The Foundation for the Fight Against Corruption or the ‘Open Russia’). We must not forget that while the Kremlin is striving to create the appearance of holding fair elections, the impact of law enforcement and military structures on the situation in the country is increasing. The logic of ‘war time’ and a sense of being a ‘besieged fortress’ have are alive and well. And thus, contradictions as to how to organize work with ‘internal enemies’ may also grow among the authorities.

Oppressive measures can be regarded as a ‘failure’ inside the system, which - in the context of the preparation for elections – is aimed at bringing about a more peaceful scenario in the country. And, as it is not possible to predict the consequences of such failure, the level of predictability also decreases in this area.

A separate matter of intrigue yet to be resolved is the strategy of a ‘non-systemic field.’ Democratic coalition has collapsed - leaders of the non-systemic opposition no longer have any legitimate forms of participation in the elections. The need for the collection of signatures for the registration of candidates in districts creates an administrative barrier practically impossible to overcome. During the 2011 elections, in an attempt to decrease votes and diminish the power of United Russia, Navalny and his colleagues called for voting for any other party. This year, judging by the statements of the opposition, such an approach is no longer relevant. The authorities have created conditions which exclude any possibility of playing by the rules, and therefore, a game without rules will be played. This is also a factor of political risk giving rise to political unpredictability.

Finally, a virtual threat to the predictable scenario of elections held according the  Kremlin’s plan is a threat of dissemination of the ‘Balashikha case’ (thus christened by ‘Vedomosti’). In April 2015, the city of Balashikha held local elections which became one of the most scandalous and arbitrary ever with an unprecedented level of violence against journalists and observers. This is no longer a problem of organization or control over the vertical structure of elections by the Kremlin, rather it is a matter of the enormous inertia of the administrative machine, strictly and uncompromisingly seeking to achieve its desired result.

In this regard, the September elections sharply increase the risk of the emergence of two types of conflicts. The first type of conflict is within the government between those, like Ella Pamfilova, who call for at least a minimum level of decency in elections, and those who, due to administrative and bureaucratic circumstances, are no longer able to do anything else than apply the usual pattern of manipulation. The conflict between the Kremlin and the governors, the CEC and local commissions may result in real surprises in the September elections.

The second type of conflict is among the authorities (members of election commissions, the police, pro-government activists) and observers, whose rights and opportunities may be severely limited in this election. The ‘System’ has created and imposed a clear and uncompromising attitude that independent observers are ‘Western agents,’ resulting in a radical shift in the boundaries of acceptable actions aimed at obstructing the obervers’ work, making their work extremely dangerous. The threat of the violence of the ‘Balashikha case’ being a commonplace practice rather than an exception, may in fact lead to military confrontation between systemic and non-systemic elements.

The 2016 Duma elections are a matter of great intrigue, though not in terms of the election results, but rather in terms how the elections will be held and as a test of the System’s tolerance for non-systemic activity. Conflict and the spread of oppressive practices as part of the new reality in Russia is a sign of weakness, decreased stability, and of degradation of the regime. After this, any signs or demonstration of flexibility from Moscow will be too late, as the  repressive and violent processes may by then have become irreversible.

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