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Russia's ruling party wants a big victory in the upcoming elections

From September 17th to 19th, the Russians will elect their parliament: the State Duma. Although the Russian parliament is still less powerful than the presidency, it has taken on expanded powers, particularly in economic matters, under the new constitution. The institution also serves as an important means of communication between different sections of the population and the government, conveying grievances and worries upwards and distributing patronage and generosity downwards.

The ruling United Russia party is defending its super majority of 336 seats, but is facing increasing challenges due to its own unpopularity and increasing complaints. While United Russia is very unlikely to lose control, maintaining a large majority is key to both its cohesion and the legitimacy of the Putin government.

From September 17th to 19th, the Russians will elect their parliament: the State Duma. Although the Russian parliament is still less powerful than the presidency, it has taken on expanded powers, particularly in economic matters, under the new constitution. The institution also serves as an important means of communication between different sections of the population and the government, conveying grievances and worries upwards and distributing patronage and generosity downwards.

The ruling United Russia party is defending its super majority of 336 seats, but is facing increasing challenges due to its own unpopularity and increasing complaints. While United Russia is very unlikely to lose control, maintaining a large majority is key to both its cohesion and the legitimacy of the Putin government.

The Russian elections are not entirely free and fair, but the actual voting itself has become safer over the years. This attempt to secure the vote results from the government's need for credibility in the form of a stamp of approval from the population and as a reaction to counter-reactions to previous instances and allegations of manipulation. Although there are still some voting irregularities, especially at less centrally controlled regional levels, United Russia has primarily focused on restricting the opposition groups' ability to compete on a level playing field by using the Making ballot entry difficult and restricting access to the media, and adding layers of bureaucratic restrictions.

United Russia has strong political control over the Russian Federation; although over the years the legitimacy of the elections on which their rule was based began to wane. One problem is the inability to deliver fully on economic promises after a series of crises following the 2008 recession. The reduced purchasing power and the depreciation of the ruble make the government appear weaker. United Russia is also facing increasing pressure because of its authoritarianism and its association with corruption (or “kleptocracy” as the opposition calls it). The Russian leadership has become increasingly unpopular, and United Russia has suffered setbacks in the elections, such as losing nearly a third of its seats in the 2019 Moscow City Council elections.

The party's goals go beyond simply trying to win a majority. United Russia currently holds just under three-quarters of the Duma seats, and reducing its share could have significant consequences. First of all, United Russia's ability to amend the Constitution of the Russian Federation, which it skillfully applied in 2020 ahead of the upcoming Duma elections, could be seriously hampered if its majority fell below two-thirds.

Perhaps more importantly, a reduced reserve in the Duma votes could hamper the cohesion of United Russia as a political party or its ability to use so-called systemic opposition parties in the State Duma. As the electoral vehicle of a diverse Russian elite, United Russia is under constant stress from diverging political demands. The smaller the United Russia's majority in the Duma, the greater the risk of a split into factions as individual Duma delegates try to exploit the thinner margins for their own agendas. Such factioning could also include Russia's systemic opposition parties (e.g., currently, the systemic opposition acts more as a lobby group for its members and voters than as a united opposition the ruling party in order to strengthen their own positions in future elections.

To counter the various challenges, United Russia has taken a carrot-and-stick approach. For the carrot, it has tried to present itself as a responsive government that weeds out or even arrests corrupt local politicians, while at the same time marginalizing increasingly unpopular personalities and promoting those with broader appeal. This includes the slow overthrow of former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The former president and longtime prime minister resigned as prime minister in 2020 to be replaced by technocrat Mikhail Mishustin. Although Medvedev remains chairman of United Russia, he was removed from the party's electoral list.

Instead, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shogyu and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are at the top of the party list. It is unlikely that both men will sit in the Duma. Both are very popular as they stand up for Russia's interests abroad and are far less corrupt than Medvedev, who has long been exposed as expensive. Medvedev has remained silent about his own sideline position, continues to support "United Russia" and in a recent interview points to the risk of political instability that comes without a dominant party.

United Russia has also tried to strengthen its economic image. The most recent constitutional amendments included a laundry list of populist economic measures, including guarantees for more generous pensions and benefits. The government has also sought to invest in a more prosperous Russia with bold development plans and a transition to more effective governance under Mishustin's leadership.

The crux of the United Russia approach is to use various means of law enforcement and harassment to make coherent campaigns more difficult for the new generation of opposition activists, who come from outside the opposition parties that have long been represented in parliament. Most prominent is the decision to classify the imprisoned dissident Alexei Navalny and his supporters as members of an extremist organization and to prevent them from running.

There are also other major obstacles faced by opposition leaders who face a challenge. First, any competing political party on the party list must first be considered legal, which can be difficult as the electoral commission is far from impartial. Once approved, a party must then receive 5 percent of the national vote in order to qualify for a seat in parliament or to run in one of the individual constituencies. Independents can run in a single constituency but must collect 15,000 signatures from registered voters in the area within 45 days and then have those signatures verified. This is a challenging task, especially as many voters distrust such petitions or fear that their support of an opposition party could lead to retaliation.

By far the greatest challenge facing the opposition, however, is its fragmentation. The only thing that unites the opposition is that they are against "United Russia" – moreover, their policies, political ideals and views vary widely. One reason Navalny was targeted was that, like previous opposition figures like Andrei Sakharov or Boris Yeltsin, he was able to serve as a unit for the various opposition groups to rally behind.

With open association with Navalny now illegal, the opposition remains fragmented but still active; and independent and younger members of established opposition parties are increasingly taking action against “United Russia”. It is plausible that at least some seats will be lost to the opposition in this election. The opposition will continue to penetrate regional and local politics by focusing on bread and butter issues. Yet the opposition remains deeply divided and unable to offer a coherent alternative vision for Russia other than outside the established power structures.

Ultimately, United Russia remains a strong electoral position and is likely to dominate political life in the Russian Federation for some time to come. However, as the challenges increase, the party's focus will increasingly shift to maintaining this position domestically. This could represent a break with the past when United Russia enjoyed the freedom – afforded by its electoral security – to focus on politics rather than politics. The party itself may also need to evolve, how it forms itself for this new role and how it deals with the resulting internal tensions.

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