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Confident but not uncontested Internal campaign documents show that Russia’s ruling political party has a plan hold onto the State Duma and beat Alexey Navalny’s strategic voting initiative

Source: Meduza
Dmitry Dukhanin / Kommersant

The leaders of United Russia, the party that has dominated national politics since it was founded roughly two decades ago, fully expect to lose seats in next year’s parliamentary elections, but they have a plan to maintain their constitutional majority in the State Duma, according to campaign documents obtained by Meduza. In the 2021 races, Russia’s “party of power” intends to nominate “specialists in socially significant or socially approved spheres of activity,” and it’s looking for ways to beat “Smart Vote,” the strategic voting initiative spearheaded by opposition figure Alexey Navalny’s team.

In next September’s parliamentary races, it’s unlikely that United Russia will be able to repeat the commanding electoral victory it managed in 2016. According to internal party documents obtained by Meduza, duplicating those results would be “optimistic” and “difficult to implement.” A source inside United Russia says the party apparatus developed the report with help from the Foundation for Civil Society Development (FCSD). Konstantin Kostin, the organization’s director, did not respond to Meduza’s questions about FCSD’s involvement in United Russia’s campaign strategy.

In the last parliamentary elections, according to the official results, United Russia won 343 of the State Duma’s 450 seats, claiming 54 percent of all party-list races (netting 140 seats) and 203 of all 225 single-mandate elections. Party officials now believe that winning so many seats is unfeasible “for multiple objective reasons that negatively impact [United Russia’s] political agenda as a whole.” A source inside United Russia told Meduza that the “objective reasons” to which the report alludes are the government’s decision to raise Russia’s retirement ages (approved by the parliament in July 2018) and “the public’s dissatisfaction with [coronavirus] quarantine measures, which have hit the economy and therefore hit people’s wallets.”

United Russia nevertheless hasn’t abandoned hopes of winning at least 300 seats in next year’s elections and maintaining its constitutional majority. In a scenario the party describes as “realistic,” United Russia will win more than 40 percent of party-list votes with election turnout at about 50 percent, giving it more than 100 seats in the State Duma. Even this forecast, however, anticipates a rosier future for Russia’s party of power. The latest national polling by the state-owned Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) suggests that only 33.1 percent of Russians would currently vote for United Russia. The party’s popularity has hovered just above 30 percent for more than two years now.

United Russia expects to continue dominating the country’s single-mandate races, winning more than 200 seats in the next contests, by fielding carefully selected candidates. According to the party’s campaign documents, these individuals should be specialists in “socially significant spheres or socially approved fields of activity” who are adept at communicating with the public. The candidates need to know how to “hear people” and be able to “grasp a problem.” “We’re talking about your [Denis] Protsenkos, your star school principals, or the real-life entrepreneurs out there creating jobs,” said Meduza’s source inside United Russia, explaining the kind of candidates the party plans to nominate for single-mandate parliamentary races. 

It’s true that United Russia used to win big in single-mandate races, but the party has struggled in these contests more recently. In nationwide regional elections in September 2020, for example, United Russia failed to get simple majorities on city councils in Novosibirsk and Tomsk (though both municipal assemblies are still led by United Russia speakers, thanks to support from independent candidates and other parties). In Tambov, meanwhile, “Rodina” won an outright majority on the local city council, riding the popularity of party member and former Mayor Maxim Kosenkov. 

In Moscow’s City Duma elections last year, United Russia candidates lost in 20 of the capital’s 45 districts. It’s possible that the unusual election results were due in part to Alexey Navalny’s “Smart Vote” initiative, which identifies and endorses the candidate in any particular race whom it deems likeliest to defeat United Russia’s nominee. Typically, this means voting for the Communist Party’s candidate or someone running from one of the other registered opposition parties. In Moscow’s 2019 elections, many of the winners were previously unknown nominees from the Communist Party and Just Russia. 

Alexey Navalny has promoted Smart Vote as an effective means of undermining United Russia’s political dominance. In a recent interview with YouTube star Yury Dud, the opposition figure argued that the project has restored some pluralism to the Moscow City Duma, saying, “We helped a large number of Communists get in and today’s [assembly] is far better because we slightly reduced United Russia’s monopoly.”

According to Meduza’s source inside Russia’s ruling political party, however, Smart Vote’s influence on election results is limited to major cities, especially Moscow. When it comes to contests elsewhere across the country, he says, United Russia doesn’t consider Navalny’s initiative to be a serious threat. 

Whatever Smart Vote’s nationwide efficacy, Moscow officials are apparently genuinely concerned about the strategic voting initiative in their own backyard, where there are 15 single-mandate districts up for grabs in next year’s parliamentary elections. “For now, the battle is on social media, but they’ve already hired political strategists for this. On social networks, they’re going after the [Moscow City Duma] deputies elected with Smart Vote support, saying, ‘They elected the wrong people — freaks and Communists — and this was in a liberal city,’” a source close to the federal government told Meduza.

According to Meduza’s source inside United Russia, the party’s leadership insists that next year’s parliamentary candidates in Moscow should be nominated officially by United Russia, breaking with a policy implemented widely in 2019, when the party endorsed many independent candidates without formally nominating them. Mayor Sergey Sobyanin’s administration reportedly objects to nominating United Russia’s candidates officially for fear that the campaign strategy could damage his popularity rating, given the city’s relatively opposition-leaning electorate. A source inside the party and someone else close to the Putin administration told Meduza that Sobyanin’s cabinet is currently considering the nomination of a “reserve list” of candidates for the next parliamentary elections, turning to people like successful medium-sized business owners. 

The campaign documents obtained by Meduza also describe a “pessimistic scenario” where United Russia manages to win only a simple majority in the next State Duma (between 226 and 300 seats). The party warns that this is possible if Russia’s economic slowdown worsens or if the country’s political situation “spirals out of control.” United Russia isn’t concerned, however, with losing its majority in Parliament. It would be “counterproductive” even to entertain the idea, the party’s strategists say. 

Story by Andrey Pertsev

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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