Do United Russia's Election Defeats Portend a Political Shift?

7 MINS READOct 15, 2018 | 09:00 GMT
The State Duma of Russia is still dominated by President Vladimir Putin's party, even though other political parties are starting to make inroads.

With Russian President Vladimir Putin seated on the dais behind him, Dmitri Medvedev addresses the State Duma in Moscow on May 8, 2018, as Russia's lower house of parliament prepares to confirm him as prime minister.

  • Recent regional elections in Russia, which led to several defeats for the ruling United Russia party, indicate that growing economic pressure and unpopular pension reforms are increasingly undermining United Russia's standing.
  • The elections could mark the beginning of a gradual decline of the party's dominance at the regional level, as pro-Kremlin opposition parties such as the Communists and the Liberal Democrats appear to be on the rise.
  • The elections could also have implications at the national level, as an alliance between pro-Kremlin opposition parties could mark a shift in Russia's political structures.

Discontent over proposed pension reforms is still showing up at the ballot box in Russia. While the ruling United Russia party won most of the gubernatorial elections on Sept. 9 as expected, a record four races were forced into runoffs. And, so far, United Russia has lost two of those regional elections and pulled out of a third. (The fourth is set for December.) Though President Vladimir Putin's party is likely to remain the largest and most influential political party for the foreseeable future, the latest elections could indicate that important political shifts are taking place at the regional and national levels.

The Big Picture

Stratfor's 2018 Fourth-Quarter Forecast anticipated that some gubernatorial elections in September in Russia would challenge the dominance of the ruling United Russia party and were likely to produce protests against President Vladimir Putin's government. This did indeed occur, and those regional elections indicate that a broader political shift is taking place in Russia.

The Politics of Elections 

Russia has 85 regions, consisting of territorial units known as oblasts, republics, krais and autonomous okrugs, and regional elections are held every year on a rotating geographic basis. The races for governor are the most important and have been subject to direct citizen vote since 2012, which Putin conceded to after mass protests over disputed parliamentary and presidential elections. Given Russia's vast size, regional elections are an important gauge of Putin's base of power across the country (through the United Russia party) and public mood at the regional level.

But gubernatorial elections usually don't pose a threat to United Russia. It won all 16 governor seats up for a vote in 2017. Before then, only one governor's seat had been taken by a non-United Russia candidate; that was in Irkutsk in 2015, when a Communist was victorious. This lock on seats is largely because of the so-called municipal filter law, which requires candidates for governor to gather signatures from 5 percent to 10 percent of municipal council deputies. United Russia dominates most of these councils and keeps true opposition candidates from seriously contesting for regional offices. 

Pension Reform Backlash

However, an important shift took place in this year's regional elections. They came after Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev introduced proposals for pension reform on June 16, calling for substantial increases in the retirement age. The initial bill raised the retirement age for women from 55 to 63 by 2034 and from 60 to 65 for men by 2028. The bill proved to be highly unpopular, with polls consistently showing that 90 percent of those surveyed opposed it. The proposal sparked protests in hundreds of cities over several months — drawing tens of thousands of people in Moscow at one point — and more than 3 million signed a petition against it. 

Putin initially stayed out of the debate, but he finally weighed in during a televised address to the nation on Aug. 29. He proposed revising the bill by setting the retirement age for women at 60, instead of 63, and by lowering the amount of work experience needed to claim early retirement. While the president said the reforms were needed to sustain the financial viability of Russia's pension system for the long term, the announcement could also be seen as an attempt to stem the public discontent with little more than a week to go before the regional elections.

Denting United Russia 

While such moves, as well as other measures by the Duma, on pension reform did lead to a decrease in the size and frequency of protests across Russia, regional elections couldn't escape public dissatisfaction. A record four regions — Khabarovsk, Primorye, Vladimir and Khakassia — saw runoffs as the United Russia candidates failed to win a majority in the first round. These candidates supported the pension reforms, while the challengers all spoke against them. The challengers hailed from the so-called systemic opposition parties, which are Kremlin-approved, and included the Communist Party, the Liberal Democratic Party and A Just Russia party.

The first runoff was on Sept. 16 in Primorye and was originally won by the United Russia candidate Andrei Tarasenko against the Communist Party challenger Andrei Ishchenko. However, the regional election commission voted on Sept. 20 to invalidate the results of the runoff after allegations of vote-rigging against Tarasenko and demonstrations by the Communist Party. A fresh election has been called for Dec. 16, and Ishchenko is becoming the clear-cut favorite after the vote-fraud allegations tarnished Tarasenko's image.

On Sept. 23, two more runoff elections were held in Vladimir and Khabarovsk, and the Liberal Democratic candidates won both. The vote-rigging charges in the Primorye election led to more transparent elections in both regions, and decisive victories by the opposition candidates followed. A fourth runoff election had been set for the same day in Khakassia, but the United Russia candidate pulled out, citing "poor health" (amid indications that he had little chance of winning). Now the runoff will take place Oct. 21 between candidates from the Communist Party and A Just Russia. 

These victories have benefited the systemic opposition parties, which are typically aligned with the Kremlin on foreign policy and national security, but support a more interventionist and socially friendly economic model. The government may have practical reasons for ensuring that the pension system remains functional in the long term as Russia faces deeper economic challenges, including a shrinking population and prolonged sanctions pressure from the West. Nevertheless, the move has driven support for the systemic opposition at the expense of United Russia.

Opposition Alliances

The latest regional victories may be an early sign of further gains to come for these parties. Indeed, after the elections, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov announced that his organization would form a coalition government with Vladimir Zhirinovsky and the Liberal Democratic Party in the three regions where United Russia was defeated. The details of such a coalition remain unclear, but the prospect of its formation does show a willingness for these systemic opposition parties to work together to challenge United Russia's dominant position across the country.

The two parties have also announced plans to join forces and contest gubernatorial elections next year in St. Petersburg, Bashkortostan and Chelyabinsk. Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky have even floated the idea of creating a joint party known as the Social-Democratic Party of Russia, and the two leaders have requested to discuss the matter with Putin. Both opposition leaders have long been loyal to Putin, but they nevertheless have shown a growing desire to challenge United Russia on key issues such as pension reform. 

While such a party would in theory challenge Putin's agenda, a system of two or more parties could also spur serious competition, pushing United Russia to improve its performance. In addition, it could help reduce blatant corruption and vote rigging.

A chart shows the party makeup of the Russian Duma.

A Softer Dominance 

However, support for the systemic opposition remains relatively limited. United Russia candidates did win 18 of 22 governor seats outright. And the party holds 341 of the 450 seats in the State Duma, while the Communists hold only 43 seats, the Liberal Democrats 39 and A Just Russia 23.

But the wins by the systemic opposition could help soften the Kremlin's structural changes to the economy, as was seen with the evolution of pension reform. Putin wouldn't have to completely cave into social demands to maintain support, but he would have to alter the political balance to include other parties such as the Communists and Liberal Democrats.

Of course, the president would be wary of any political competition that isn't shaped by the Russian leader and is outside the Kremlin-friendly political system. And Alexei Navalny stands out as one of these non-systemic opposition figures, because he has called for a much broader anti-corruption drive and a complete overhaul of the Kremlin ruling elite.

Putin is now in his fourth and perhaps final term, and it is unlikely that the present Russian party and political system can be sustained indefinitely as the economic, political and social pressures pile up. The dominance of United Russia is being increasingly challenged, and a new political structure and party system appears to be emerging, albeit one that is still going to be largely shaped and controlled by the Kremlin.

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