Hegemony or Negotiated Consensus?

This year’s parliamentary elections in Russia did not promise any big surprises. In the end, there was at least one: a landslide victory for the pro-Kremlin political party United Russia (Yedinaya Rossiya) which took 76 % of seats in the Russian parliament or State Duma.[1]

Consequently, the party of the Kremlin has a constitutional majority with 343 seats in the 450-member parliament of the Russian Federation; a record result post-1990.
The final results of this year’s elections demonstrate changes in the Russian political environment over the last five years. In 2011, political protests against the Russian government increased in the big cities of Russia. Thousands of people, mainly from the middle classes or “creative classes”, demonstrated against the government and demanded political changes, liberalisation and the further modernisation of Russia. The elections, and the demand for fair elections, became politically contested as did the figure of that time, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
The Kremlin’s reaction to the protest movement of winter 2011-12, which took politics back on to the streets, was manifold as usual. In general, it might be described as a rather sophisticated mixture of concessions, repression and incorporation of opposition; all targeted to neutralise any open political challenge and to maintain the stability of the regime. The Kremlin sees politics as a power-based strategy and democracy as a “political technology” (read PR) and not as a system of values and rules.
The concessions were a calibrated response to the main criticism of the quality of Russian elections issued by the OECD monitoring mission. The Russian government had chosen to introduce only those changes which it saw as being important. This means that it, rather selectively, decided to support the security narrative in society and use, once again calibrated repression against the media, Western channels of influences and some opposition figures. Unfortunately, the crisis in Ukraine and the growing confrontation in relations with the West further strengthened the security dimension of the Kremlin’s internal policies after 2013.

Elections in the Hybrid Regime

This might be surprising, but elections in Russia do matter. There is strong support in the literature for evaluating the contemporary Russian political regime as a competitive/electoral authoritarianism[2] in which some democratic principles form a hybrid with local authoritarian traditions, values and praxis. Elections are still an important, or the only, source of the legitimacy of political power in Russia. Nevertheless, the burden of the past or path dependency is a very important factor. Explaining it must be done through a structural and institutional approach, going beyond popular shortcuts like “Putin, a former KGB officer”.
The main issue of Russian elections is that they are rather unfair: the game is distorted in favour of the incumbents, while the contestants have to play under more or less discriminatory conditions. Both occur in a rather sophisticated way and in the dualist context of the relationship between the constitutional state and administrative regime.[3] But the central power (the Kremlin) is interested in such elections being credible within Russian society. On the other hand, external credibility is seen as secondary, since the Kremlin’s main pillar is the idea of the sovereignty and autonomy of Russia.
This fundamental attitude of the regime towards elections as an engine for legitimacy helps to explain the special care which was invested this year in the credibility, relative transparency and fairness (again relative) of this September’s elections. The special care took the form of a series of changes. Among them was a change of the legislative framework in order to reintroduce the mixed system of representation: 250 members of parliament were elected based on the proportional system (party candidates lists) and the next 250 members based on majority system candidates (in single-mandate constituencies).
The next novelty was the introduction of a primary election to determine (at least partially) party candidates before the election. The party primary elections were used by the governing party but also by a number of smaller competing parties. As a further change, the threshold for party representation in the Duma was re-set – from 7 % back to 5 %. It was believed that this, together with the majority system, would open up the field of competition in the elections. Also, strict bureaucratic rules for party registration were partially lifted. In the end, this enabled 14 political parties to be involved; 100 % more than in 2011. Some changes were made to ensure at least formal access to all those running in the state media. Finally, the Kremlin changed the chairperson of the Central Election Commission (CEC). Election “wizard” Vladimir Churov was replaced by Ella Pamfilova, a former Ombudsman of the Russian Federation.
The preliminary report of the OECD mission in Russia, however, still found many flaws mainly related to some regional irregularities, but also to the Russian election legislature and, importantly, to unequal and unfair media coverage. Some positive changes were also mentioned.[4] More than a week after the election, there were several reports of irregularities which are under investigation. The CEC did not exclude the possibility that elections will have to be re-run in some cases.
The 2016 elections were therefore motivated by two aims: to ensure their domestic credibility and to maintain the United Russia or Putinite hegemony in the context of a continuous search for stability.

Why has United Russia won?

The easiest answer to this question would be: because of flawed elections. But this is really superficial and too easy an answer to a much more complex problem. Let me ask this question in another way: how it is possible that the ruling party has won an election during the worse economic and social stagnation since perestroika? In answering this, we find multiple ideological and politico-cultural factors at play.
Firstly, there is the plebiscitary character of elections in Russia which goes back to the time of Boris Yeltsin. It seems this year the voting become a vote for or against…Putin again. Despite the fact that Vladimir Putin, still extremely popular as Russia’s president, was not a main visual “brand” of United Russia (like in 2011). It was possible to keep the key narrative that United Russia is the political muscle of Vladimir Putin.
A symbolically personalised vision of politics still frames Russian politics at large and it is becoming a fundamental part of United Russia’s political image. All this despite some very unpopular steps before the election, open criticism of prime minister Dmitry Medvedev and efforts by the political opposition to return to the 2011 slogan which accused United Russia of being the party of “thieves and swindlers”. United Russia did not suffer from a deepening social and economic stagnation in Russia thanks to the largely depoliticised figure of a popular president. Putin is consequently embodying a kind of meta- programme beyond any party programme in a very postmodern way.
Second, the image of the incumbent president Vladimir Putin is much based on the foreign political fundament. Putin is now offering a new and powerful narrative of “Russia – great again”, in the context of a socio-economic crisis with both external and internal dynamics and sources.
Moreover, it is possible that socio-economic stabilisation in 2000 and 2009 still benefits Putin in the form of some hope projected into the future. It might make many believe that he can (and thus United Russia also can) steer Russia out of the recent multiple crises. Thus, the president is not perceived as part of the crisis but as an uninvolved actor transcending it.
In the domestic discourse it is possible to observe a relatively strong emphasis on the new economic model for Russia. As is tradition in Russia, it is firmly linked to great power ambitions than with the idea of the general welfare of Russian citizens. The key problem is that the new economic model exists largely only on paper and the Putinite elites (organised into several factions) did not reach a compromise on it. We must search for the reasons for this in the current Russian political economy.
Third, the great power/patriotic narrative of Russian politics (sometimes called the “Crimea consensus”) is inevitably reinforced by the West with its recent anti-Russian and sometimes even Russophobic stance. On both sides, (not only the Russian side as some try to argue) there is a strong enemy image component which is feeding both sides. And polarised and emotionally connoted enemy images sell – especially in election campaigns. There was also an anti-Western patriotic component which reinforced the position of United Russia. On the other hand, it also dramatically weakened its pro-Western liberal opponents (Yabloko, PARNAS).[5] Finally, three other parliamentary competitors more or less supported the Putinite meta-programme which distorted any alternative programmes they offer – simply put, there were no clear differences to choose from.
Fourth, one must also take into account non-ideological factors. To mention just one: United Russia did indeed prepare well for the elections especially due to the primary election which enabled it to test the political landscape regionally and locally. This paid dividends especially in the case of single mandate constituencies.

The Limits of Victory

However, there are reasons to be rather cautious about United Russia’s victory. There are several factors that demonstrate the limits of the current mobilising policies under the weakening “Crimea consensus”, indicating also that the lost Putinite consensus based on economic and social stability and growth is beginning to have its delayed consequences. It is probable that these political consequences will slowly grow in the future.
First, we have to note that United Russia won in the context of sharply falling election participation (over 12 %). For the first time in the Russia’s recent history (after 1990), there will be a minority parliament. Only 48 % of voters came out to vote and express their opinion, while 52 % stayed at home in silence. In the broader context, 48 % seems rather normal, in the Russian context it is a noticeable change.
Now, some critics accuse United Russia of intrigue regarding the changing of the date of the elections.[6] This spring, the Duma shortened its incumbency in order to organise the elections in September (together with some regional and gubernatorial elections and on a so-called “Single Election Day”). And it seems this electoral passivity really favoured United Russia in the end.
From the point of view of political stability (and in the context of long-term socio-economic stagnation) this might hardly be seen as a good news. The silent majority is a potential risk for the very stability the Putin regime is building. It can be said that the Crimean consensus is clearly de-politicising and not a mobilising factor, or its mobilising dynamics are slowing down significantly. It is probably the case that the silence is a mixture of passivity (‘I don’t care about politics’), systemic distrust (‘I don’t trust elections’), protest and discontent. Finally, the lack of real political alternatives like in the Western democracies is a contributing factor also.
Let us put the victory of United Russia in clearer mathematical terms. In comparison with the 2011 results, United Russia has indeed lost about 4 million votes, or – put another way – of 111 million Russian voters, just about 28 million voted for United Russia in 2016. In 2011, United Russia had just about 49.3 % support while this year it had 54.12 % support in the proportional system and fully dominated the majority elections in the one mandate districts. Thus, we have a rather paradoxical situation. Including the majority votes, the party controls 76 % of seats in the parliament under the condition of smaller (or silent) support. The next three parliamentary parties become losers, since they lost a number of seats in comparison with 2011. At least nominally left-oriented and opposition parties like Just Russia and the Communist Party of the Russian Federation can be deemed the biggest losers in 2016 since the losses of both parties were very significant.
Last but not least, it is worth noting the regional performance of United Russia in the heterogeneous Russian space. Here we traditionally have very diverse situations. In the Russian South (mainly Caucasus,) United Russia received a huge amount of support (some 80-90 % in Chechnya and other republics), while in some south and south-eastern Siberian regions it was between just 33 to 38 and 40 % in the context of very low turnout (about 35 % on average). Statistically, these regions started to feel the impacts of stagnation more than those in the southern periphery with its special security-based position. But interestingly, in two large, wealthy and globalised Russian cities, the situation was very similar to that in some parts of less well-off Siberia. In St. Petersburg and in Moscow, United Russia did not even attain 40 % of the votes and turnout was just around 33 %.

Future Scenarios for Russian Domestic Politics

How might this newly emerging situation of UR parliamentary hegemony translate into the political life of Russia?
Russia has a supra-presidential constitution which limits the room for political manoeuvring of the parliament (legislative power) in relation to the executive power of the Kremlin and its government. In today’s Russia we can evaluate the dominant and Kremlin-centred party system as a different version of cartel party politics based on inter–party consensus as a system of unwritten rules, agreements, compromises and negotiations. The basic framework of the Kremlin-centred cartel system was not changed after the elections: there are still four parliamentary parties in the Duma. What did change is the internal constellation within it, and also the internal situation in the ruling United Russia party.
The first scenario can be projected in a simplistic way: the renewed and strong party of power will fully monopolise the parliament and not seek any inter-party consensus. The parliament’s weak position in the political system will deepen and the Kremlin will have carte blanche for any future projects for Russia in a system where political opposition has virtually disappeared. This is a straightforward hegemony scenario whose stability is, however at risk due to continuing and long-term stagnation.
If we observe carefully the Putinite style of politics we can clearly see that Vladimir Putin prefers consensual hegemony over repressive measures (which does not prevent their use in particular cases). Of course, this is not a democratic consensus in the sense that it would take into the account Russian demos, it is rather an intra-elite negotiation process where demos plays mainly an assistance role. But, and especially in the context of socio-economic crisis, it cannot be fully ignored.
The second scenario will be based on consensus-building within existing (and indeed confirmed) the Kremlin-centred cartel and towards the public. It is already clear that United Russia will offer some concessions to three political parties in the parliament through, for example, a new division of labour in the parliamentary committees.[7] President Putin himself, very soon after the elections, moved away from any victorious policies of the UR as being “Winner takes all” and called for a consensus-based division of labour (which also includes widely distributed public responsibility for austerity policies ahead).[8]
Paradoxically, as some argue[9], United Russia’s current situation could help to enforce the political role of parliament in the future (but of course within the limits of the hybrid regime).
The election indeed resulted in larger regionalisation of United Russia followed by a noticeable cadre renewal of about 70 %. This regionalisation will be accompanied by an increasing struggle (and competition) for budgetary resources (centre – region distribution axis) within the UR faction, and this might well contribute not to political homogeneity but rather to the heterogeneity of interests. And it is also probable that the new Duma will be permeated by regional lobbying to a much greater degree than the former one.
Furthermore, Vladimir Putin nominated Vyacheslav Volodin – his former curator of internal politics in the presidential administration – as the new speaker of the Duma and on 5 October Volodin was elected by the parliament to this role. Volodin is considered an ambitious politician who will probably be highly interested in increasing the political role of the Duma (and his own). This may contribute to a new role for the parliament in the future. Moreover, there are other signals indicating not only a series of cadre changes but also changes regarding competences in the Russian system of rule/political management. It seems that centres of power could move from the Presidential administration to the Security Council and the Duma, while searching for new forms of internal balance.
In any case, very important political puzzles are waiting to be solved by Russia. Its foreign policy aimed at the ambitious renewal of regional power status, along with socio-economic stagnation and the search for a new economic model beyond a natural resources-based economy is a major challenge in the context of achieving any type of societal and stable consensus.

Veronika Sušová-Salminen, Ph.D. is a Czech comparative historian based in Finland. Her topics of interests are Russian and Central East European politics, Russian-EU relations and geopolitics. In 2015 she published a monograph (in Czech) about politics in Putin’s Russia. She is also a regular contributor to several Czech magazines and newspapers.
[1] Parallel to the parliamentary election, there were also elections of governors (in 9 regions), regional legislative assemblies (in 39 regions) and some municipal elections also. Here, the hegemony of United Russia was clear too. See graphs here (in Russian): http://www.kommersant.ru/elections2016.
[2] For example: Levitsky, Steven – Way, Lucan, The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism, in Journal of Democracy, Vol. 3, N. 2/2003, 51-65, Gelman, Vladimir, The Rise and Decline of Electional Authoritarianism in Russia, in Demokratizatsiya, Vol. 22, Issue 4, Fall 2014, 503-522.
[3] See the argument of Richard Sakwa, The Crisis of Russian Democracy. The Dual State, Factionalism and Medvedev Succession, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge – New York 2010.
[4] See Preliminary Report of OSCE Mission in Russia: http://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/russia/265186.
[5] Yabloko’s result was 1.99 % in proportional system, 0 seats in the single mandate constituency. PARNAS got 0,76 % support in in the proportional system and no seats in the single-mandate constituency.
[6] See the Novaya Gazeta article (in Russian): http://www.novayagazeta.ru/columns/74605.html.
[7] There will be 26 committees in the new Duma, of which 13 will be divided between the Communists, the Liberal Democrats (5 each) and Just Russia (3), and 13 will be in the hands of United Russia. The division relates to the chairpersons of the committees. See (in Russian): http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/3100109.
[8] See (in Russian) http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/3093724.
[9] See an interview with Ekaterina Shulman (in Russian): http://www.gazeta.ru/comments/2016/09/24_a_10213019.shtml.