Russia is holding an election it wants nobody to know about
Suspicions that Vladimir Putin is looking to depress voter turnout while securing support of millions of state employees.
ByNataliya Vasilyeva, RUSSIA CORRESPONDENT, MOSCOW 11 September 2021
Russia is gearing up for its most important political event in years. Not that you would know it.
On the streets of Moscow and other cities, posters of prospective MPs have been unusually sparse.
The airwaves, too, are quiet – despite there being just one week to go until parliamentary elections.
The declining popularity of Mr Putin’s affiliated ruling party may go some way to explain the eerie silence from the Kremlin in particular.
“I haven’t heard much about it. I don’t watch TV, and politics is just so alien to me,” Anastasia Zimova, a mother of three from Moscow, told the Telegraph.
Analysts say the best chance of legally retaining control of the Duma is by dissuading people from voting while getting millions of civil servants and state-paid employees to back United Russia.
With just 28 per cent, United Russia’s popularity rating is hovering around a 13-year-old low, which makes it crucial for the Kremlin to ensure that state-paid employees show up for the ruling party while opposition supporters, faced with a flurry of repressive laws and criminal charges, stay at home.
Canvassing was hardly noticeable in Moscow until two weeks before the election day, and in Russia’s biggest cities, where United Russia polls at about 15 per cent, pro-Kremlin candidates often hide their political affiliation.
“No one cares about these elections. I think the authorities have already decided everything for us,” Gennady Gushchin, a taxi driver from the western city of Smolensk, said.
In Moscow’s affluent south-west, street billboards sing praise to a United Russia candidate as an excellent physician but never mention the party that nominated him.
A tiny United Russia logo of a bear standing underneath a Russian flag is barely visible in the bottom corner on his ads.
Just a year ago, the Kremlin ran a massive get out the vote campaign to deliver a high turnout for President Putin’s referendum that enabled him to seek office again after 2024 if he wishes.
The goal was to demonstrate an overwhelming support for the president while now Mr Putin’s administration is anxious to dampen the turnout so that authorities would not have to resort to ballot-stuffing to beat the protest vote.
“By depressing the turnout, mobilising the electorate they control and boosting at-home voting the authorities could rig the elections in an elegant way,” Tatyana Stanovaya, a non-resident scholar at the Moscow Carnegie Center and head of the R. Politik political analysis firm, told the Telegraph.
The Kremlin appears to have done its homework for the elections months ago.
The most vocal political figures have been driven into exile or disqualified from running because of ties to Alexei Navalny’s organisation which has been declared extremist in Russia along with the likes of al-Qaeda.
The handful of parties that are running against United Russia are only opposition in name and have been at the Kremlin’s beck and call when Mr Putin needed them on board to back the 2014 Crimean annexation or last year’s constitutional amendments, scrapping term limitations for the president.
With Mr Navalny, the Kremlin’s nemesis, behind bars and his allies barred from running, the opposition this year pins its hopes on Smart Voting, a tactical voting strategy which will use pollster data to endorse the one non-United Russia candidate most likely to win in their constituency.
Research by Grigory Golosov, head of the Political Science department at European University at St Petersburg, this week estimated that a Smart Voting endorsement on average added an extra 10 per cent on to a non-United Russia candidate in regional elections across Russia last year.
Mr Navalny’s allies see the Kremlin’s recent efforts to block access to the Smart Voting website and its mobile app as a recognition of their work.
“With all of its words and deeds, the Kremlin has been showing that it views Smart Voting as the only threat to its monopoly on power,” Leonid Volkov, Mr Navalny’s former campaign chief, said earlier this week, urging opposition supporters to vote for the candidates they endorse.
“The Kremlin is trying to pretend there’s no election at all so that no one shows up and, more importantly, no one goes for Smart Voting.”