With Putin secure, Kremlin looks to clean up elections
Russia is gearing up for parliamentary elections on September 18, with parties loyal to President Vladimir Putin set to dominate despite the Kremlin making a show of cleaning up the vote after mass protests last time around.
The nationwide polls — which include the annexed Crimea peninsula for the first time — come as Putin’s ratings still stand at more than 80 percent despite the country enduring the longest economic crisis of his rule due to falling oil prices and sanctions over Ukraine.
While a new election chief has clamped down on corruption and more opposition candidates have been allowed to run, analysts say the authorities’ total grip looks certain to guarantee a smooth victory — likely setting the stage for Putin to cruise to a fourth term in power in 2018.
“Clearly, the Kremlin has little appetite for relaxing its wholesale control over Russia’s political system,” the Carnegie Moscow Centre think tank wrote.
“At the same time, there is a desire to portray the elections as largely fair to help the regime to bolster its legitimacy among both elites and the broader body politic in the run-up to the 2018 presidential election.”
The polls also include votes for some key regional leaders: most prominently in the North Caucasus republic of Chechnya where Kremlin-loyal strongman Ramzan Kadyrov is facing his first popular test to his decade-long rule. Rights groups in the region say there has been a harsh crackdown on dissent in the run up to the vote.
– Haunted by protests –
Looming large for the Kremlin in this round of parliamentary polls is the memory of mass protests that followed the 2011 vote, which drew tens of thousands of Russians on to the streets after evidence of vote rigging emerged.
The demonstrations represented the biggest challenge to Putin’s dominance since he took charge in 2000 and experts say the authorities are desperate not to give any pretext for a repeat.
Those fears were only heightened by the 2014 ousting of Ukraine’s Kremlin-backed leader Viktor Yanukovych by huge protests in Kiev, sparking a crisis that has plunged Russia’s ties with the West to their lowest point since the Cold War.
“For authorities it is important to preserve an air of decency,” Yekaterina Schulmann of the Russian Academy of National Economy and Public Administration told AFP, adding this would mean “the absence of high-profile scandals or scandalous news.”
In March, Putin replaced the scandal-tainted head of the election commission with former human rights ombudsman Ella Pamfilova in a clear bid to clean up its image.
At a recent commission meeting, Pamfilova insisted that in the five months she has been in charge officials have taken “a string of preventive measures” against possible violations in the lead-up to the vote.
An indignant Pamfilova warned party officials and bureaucrats against pressuring voters and interfering with monitors’ work.
“I remind you that this carries up to five years of criminal punishment,” she said.
– More parties, little chance –
This time round the number of parties competing has soared from just seven at the last vote to 74, with many opposition candidates who used to struggle to get on the ballot allowed to run.
But critics insist that the improvements are purely cosmetic and no vote could ever be truly fair.
A change to the voting system that sees some MPs now elected by constituency will most likely favour the United Russia party, which controls state and local resources.
And the Kremlin exerts absolute control over the slavish state media — with prominent opposition leaders targeted by smear campaigns and leaked sex tapes.
Few understand the uphill struggle for the Kremlin’s critics more than Dmitry Gudkov, who ended the last parliamentary term as the only opposition lawmaker in the Duma.
“The chance of entering the Duma is hardly bigger” this time, Gudkov told AFP. “Nothing has changed.”
While the opposition has been allowed to air adverts on prime time TV, the authorities have still managed to stifle any real discussion of the issues.
“Advertisements are not what give you results,” Gudkov said. “Here what we have is the absence of debate, the absence of coverage of the party campaigns.”