With Russian parliamentary elections scheduled for Sept. 18, the Kremlin is already making plans to ensure that the ruling United Russia party stays in power. Party leaders are anxious to avoid a repeat of the 2011 elections, when mass protests swept the country after the government manipulated election results. This year, instead of altering the vote after polls close, the Kremlin is looking to shape the vote before polls even open.
Putin's government has looked to an often-used approach to mold elections: legislation. Tweaks to the electoral system include changing the electoral thresholds needed to get into the State Duma, lifting restrictions on the registration of political parties, restricting the regions where certain parties can run and limiting the ability of observers to coordinate among polling stations.
Liberal and fringe parties will be largely contained through these efforts, but mainstream parties are the main threat to United Russia. Four parties — United Russia (53 percent), the Communist Party (20 percent), Just Russia (14 percent) and the Liberal Democrats (12 percent) — sit in the State Duma. In the 2011 elections, United Russia lost 77 seats to the other three parties, leaving it with 238 seats and a slight majority.
The Kremlin will face relatively stiff competition from the four mainstream parties this year as well, which may have worked out a deal for the upcoming elections. According to leaks in Russian media, the parties agreed not to compete with one another in 40 of the single-seat elections. Instead, the four parties will divide those districts among themselves — 10 seats apiece. With this deal, the Kremlin is likely ensuring United Russia keeps its majority, while promising more minor positions to the mainstream opposition.
Together, these tactics seemed to work for the most part in 2015, but parliamentary elections garner much more attention than regional balloting does. In addition, Russia's economic and political situation is going to get more hectic this year. It looks as if the Kremlin can contain the electoral backlash through subtlety, for now. But while the election may already look decided, the test will be whether Putin can withstand public scrutiny as he runs for another term in 2018.